In China, during the Ming dynasty, a power crazed eunuch (Donnie Yen) tries to murder the two young heirs to the emperor’s throne. Heroic resistance fighter Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung Kar-fai) and his swordswoman lover, Yau Mo-yin (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) rescue the children and take refuge amidst the howling desert at Dragon Gate Inn. Crafty innkeeper Jade (Maggie Cheung) has a little, Sweeney Todd business going on the side. Luring bandits up to her room with the promise of sexual favours, she dispatches them with a handy trap door to be sliced n’ diced and put on the menu. Jade helps herself to their wallets, while the cannibal grub satisfies her clueless customers. When Wai-on and Mo-yin arrive, shadowed by government assassins, Jade plays both sides against each other until her conscience intervenes. A sandstorm rises, mirroring tensions inside Dragon Gate Inn. As imperial troops launch their assault, each character faces a moral choice.
New Dragon Gate Inn was one of those film festival favourites that launched Hong Kong cinema’s reputation around the globe. An adrenalin-charged remake of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967), this Tsui Hark production both ups the action ante and deepens the approach to character detail. Amidst Ching Siu Tung’s spectacular action choreography and acrobatic wirework, characters become both literal and metaphorical ping-pong balls, bouncing, scheming, double-crossing, adopting multiple identities. The assassins have no idea what Wai-on and Mo-yin look like, so reams of tension are drawn from duplicity on both sides, and a delicious subversion of traditional Chinese etiquette. Everyone remains polite whilst trying to unmask their opponent. The film revels in witty wordplay as much as swashbuckling action, memorably fusing the two during the kung fu duel where Mo-yin and Jade whip off each other’s clothes, stripping away all pretences. Ostensibly amoral, Jade emerges as the character audiences empathise with the most, if only because she is the most recognisably human. Wai-on and Mo-yin are heroic archetypes - that they’ll do the right thing was never in doubt. It’s Jade who provides the most moving moments, inspired by their nobility towards selfless bravery. Fresh of her career revitalizing collaborations with Wong Kar Wai, Maggie Cheung was beginning to prove her range went far beyond token girlfriend roles and being a pretty face. Her performance here, sly, sardonic and sensual, is something to cherish. Although their characters are ultimately less complex, co-stars Tony Leung Kar-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, star of Hard Boiled and In the Mood for Love) and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (Chinese cinema’s biggest star of all time, bar none) have charisma to burn and are suitably stoic and compelling.
An expensive production, filmed on location in the Gobi desert, the film marked the directorial debut of Hark and Siu Tung’s protégé Raymond Lee. However, with Siu Tung guiding the high-wire action scenes and Hark revelling in his pet themes while pepping up the character interplay, it remains hard to discern who directed what. The downside of Hark’s improvisational, shoot from the heart approach to filmmaking is that sometimes the giddy highs are hard to maintain. Donnie Yen (bland as a hero, but always memorable as a villain) plays the corrupt official as such an unstoppable badass, the filmmakers have no idea how to finish him off. The final fight amidst a raging sandstorm (during which several cast members suffered injuries) is fantastic, but one can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed when none of our heroes prove up to the task and a minor character gets to do in the bad guy. But these are minor quibbles, and this remains one of the essential wu xia films of the Nineties.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.