Dragon Inn

Dragon Inn (1992)
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Cast: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailers, Filmographies

The name Tsui Hark in combination with Ching Siu-Tung brightens up every Hong Kong film fan’s face immediately. The two have been responsible for some of the most influential and breathtaking period films the genre has to offer. Their 1992 collaboration "Dragon Inn" was yet another highlight in their illustrious collaboration and it is now making its DVD debut in the US as a domestic release from Tai Seng Video Marketing. Featuring an incredible cast, a captivating story, great photography and spellbinding stunts, this film is a feast for every genre fan, and I was eager to see how Tai Seng has been able to bring this movie to life on the shiny disc.

The film tells the story of a group of rebels protecting two children from being killed during a power struggle in the Ming dynasty. The power-hungry eunuch Tsao Siu Yan (Donnie Yen) the leader of the East Chamber, and he is intent on destroying all who rebel against him. He sets up a trap to bring out the rebel leader Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung), but in his stead, a small group of rebels appear to take the prey. Lead by Yau Mo-yan (Brigitee Lin Ching Hsia), the group liberates the children that were the trap and quickly escape into the desert before Tsao Siu Yan’s Black Arrow soldiers can track them. They go to "Dragon Inn" a remote tavern in the desert where they meet with their leader Chow Wai-on, but in the same night, suddenly Tsao and some of his men seek shelter in the same tavern. Desperately trying to prepare their escape, the rebels try to stay alive, while Tsao’s men slowly close the net they have put around them. But they all made their plans without taking Jade (Maggie Cheung) into consideration, the rogue owner of "Dragon Inn," a master thief and not obligated to either one of them.

Compared to other genre movies, "Dragon Inn" offers a number of nice surprises, all of which work beautifully in favor of the movie itself. The cinematography is very different from the complementary red and blue hues found in most Hong Kong period and fantasy films, making room for a sandy brown tones and a warm color palette that defines practically the entire story. While there are still the nighttime shots with their blue tinges, the colors of the desert, where this story is located, clearly dominate the scene.

A mix of a sword-fighting and a martial arts movie, "Dragon Inn" is an impressive achievement on numerous fronts. Not only does it capture beautiful images that are strikingly different from traditional martial arts films, it also goes away from the formulaic approach found in many of these films. Setting almost the entire film in a single locale – the titular "Dragon Inn" – also is an interesting twist that adds an interesting twist to the film and further more, allows the filmmakers to explore elements not commonly found in martial arts action films. With its good humor and the beautiful photography, "Dragon Inn" almost feels like the Hong Kong version of "The Old Dark House" in how it uses the limited location to its very best, making the immediate proximity of the opponents and the clandestine agendas of its inhabitants the central focus of the story. When the film explodes with full force during its final third act, there are no holds barred and the viewers it treated to some absolutely spectacular stunts and human action-work.

"Dragon Inn" is presented in an extended version on this DVD. The movie’s original length is 88 minutes, but Tai Seng has been able to obtain a 103 minute cut of this film for release on DVD, which significantly adds to the storyline of the movie. Especially character development is affected by the additional footage, giving the characters more depth, motivation and dimension than in the more time-challenged original cut.

The list of talent involved in this movie reads like the "Who’s Who" of Hong Kong cinema. Whether it is director Raymond Lee, producer Tsui Hark, who has changed the face of Hong Kong movies with films like his legendary "A Chinese Ghost Story" and others, or the infamous stunt coordinator Ching Siu-Tung, who is widely regarded as the preeminent authority in the field, the technical execution of the film is flawless. Add to that the incredible cast, consisting of Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen, and you get an action spectacle that is not only beautiful to behold, but also dramatic and touching in its development. The film gets everything right and is a powerhouse form the first to the last frame.

Tai Seng Video Marketing is presenting a cleaned up transfer of the film on this DVD in its 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. Although not enhanced for16x9 television sets, the transfer is showing a very good level of detail and fine definition. The transfer is mostly free of defects or blemishes, although in certain scenes, dust is quite evident. Nonetheless, the transfer renders the image stable and clear. The colors are vibrant and natural looking, nicely recreating the tastefully designed color scheme of the movie. Fleshtones are always naturally rendered while the many atmospherically lit interior scenes are filled with subtle hues and shades that are perfectly saturated and nicely reproduce the original look of the film on this disc. The black level is good, creating solid blacks, while shadows still maintain good definition at all times. The compression of the material on the disc is without flaws, creating a sharply delineated image without dot crawl or edge-enhancement. Some slight compression artifacts are evident in select scenes, but they are never distracting.

The disc contains monaural <$DD,Dolby Digital> language tracks in Cantonese, Mandarin and an English dub. Since the disc defaults to the Cantonese track with the English subtitles turned on, let’s quickly forget that there is such a thing as an English audio track, shall we. The Chinese tracks, though presented only in mono, are of very good quality however, with a good dynamic range. The frequency response never appears limited, and creates a pleasing presentation of the audio with well-integrated dialogues and powerful sound effects.

The DVD features an <$commentary,audio commentary> tack by Ric Meyers from "Inside Kung Fu" magazine. From the first moment it is obvious that Meyers is extremely knowledgeable about the genre and his commentary is an addition to this release that should not be overlooked. He points out the actors involved in the scenes and fills viewers in on their backgrounds and the stature many of them have in Hong Kong cinema. He also discusses thematic elements of the film, as well as technical aspects, all in a way that is informative and entertaining. Never does the track get boring, and the information offered is extremely valuable, especially for more casual viewers of Hong Kong movies, who are not necessarily familiar with the actors, plots and dramaturgy of Asian films. A number of trailers and filmographies round out this release.

"Dragon Inn" is a beautiful and captivating film. The story, the scenery, the cinematography and the action are simply top notch, making it a memorable Hong Kong film experience. The entire film shows once again how unconventional Asian movies sometimes are in terms of their storytelling, and how vastly they can differ from the typical Hollywood formula that is applied to practically every film produced in the US. The grand finale of "Dragon Inn" is breathtaking, staggering and showcases martial arts at their best. It is a prime example to prove that no matter how hard they try, no American action film with phony martial arts will ever be able to hold a candle to the work of the people who live and breathe the "Chi."