A Hong Kong wuxia remake of 1966’s classic tale “Dragon Gate Inn”. Directed by Raymond Lee and produced by Tsui Hark, starring Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen. It was released as “Dragon Inn” in the USA.
“New Dragon Gate Inn” features a host of popular Hong Kong actors and actresses, many of whom have had a long and successful working relationship with producer Tsui Hark.
Brigitte Lin stars as “Yau Mo-yan”, a woman disguised as a male, who possesses excellent sword skills. Lin has had a glittering Asian film career appearing in films such as “Police Story“, “Swordsman II”, “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain”, “Peking Opera Blues” and “Ashes of Time”, to name but a few.
Tony Leung Ka-fai plays “Zhou Huaian”, a rebel general who fights against the despotic rule of the evil Cao Shao-qin. In a career spanning over thirty years, Tony Leung has moved comfortably between action, martial arts and dramatic roles as one of Hong Kong’s most popular actors. He has had notable roles in “A Better Tomorrow III”, “She Shoots Straight”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Ashes of Time”, “Election” and recently played Wong Fei-hung’s father, Wong Kei-ying, in “Rise of the Legend”.
Starring as “Jade/Jinxiang”, the landlady of the Dragon Gate Inn, is Maggie Cheung. She is probably best remembered for playing “May”, Jackie Chan’s long-suffering girlfriend in the “Police Story” movies. She has acquitted herself as both a respected dramatic and comedy actress, and also as an action star in films as diverse as “The Iceman Cometh“, “As Tears Go By”, “In the Mood for Love”, “Moon Warriors”, “The Heroic Trio” and “Hero“.
Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen plays the evil despotic eunuch “Cao Shao-qin”. Donnie’s career was still ascending and he followed this part up with another villainous character opposite Jet Li in “Once Upon a Time in China II”, before returning to more heroic roles in films such as “Iron Monkey” and “Butterfly and Sword”.
There are also notable appearances from veteran actor Shun Lau as “Cha”, “Once Upon a Time in China” kung fu master Yen Shi-kwan as “Ho Fu”, and Yuen Woo-ping’s brother, Yuen Cheung-yan, who plays “Iron”.
Set during the Ming Dynasty on the desert border of China and Mongolia, Cao Shao-qin is a ruthless, power-crazed eunuch, who governs the province. He has built up an elite army of skilled archers and horsemen known as the Dong Chang.
When defence minister Yang Yu-xuan plot against him and his despotic rule, Cao executes him and his family. Cao spares two of the younger children, sentencing them to exile in order to lure Yang’s subordinate, rebel General Zhou Huaian, into a trap.
Rebels, led by Zhou’s lover, swordswoman Yau Mo-yan, attempt to rescue the children, but are attacked by Cao’s troops. Cao calls off the attack when he realises that Zhou is not among the fighters, and instead orders his troops to pursue them to find where they will be meeting with Zhou. The rebels and the children proceed to the Dragon Gate Pass through which they will cross the border into Mongolia.
They reach the Dragon Gate Inn, which is a hive of villainy. The innkeeper, the lively Jade, runs a sideline in which she seduces and murders her guests. Jade keeps whatever money the customer has, then drops them down a chute to the kitchen. Her cook Dao, an expert at stripping meat to the bones, disposes of the bodies by chopping them up and serving the meat in buns.
Mo-yan, disguised as a man, and her followers arrive at the inn, but Jade is not fooled, claiming that only a woman would pass her without so much as a glance. Rebel leader Zhou arrives and is re-united with Mo-yan. They plan to cross the border with the children but bad weather delays them.
Jade takes a shine to Zhou and resolves to get him for herself, and also has in mind the reward offered for his capture. Things are made even more complicated when Cao’s officials led by Cha arrive at the inn posing as merchants.
The scene is set for a vicious battle between the competing factions, with Jade trying to keep the peace, whilst wringing every advantage, monetary or otherwise, that she can get out of it.
Will Jade’s scheme and sinister source of meat be discovered, or will she mend her ways and help the rebels and the children escape through the pass before Cao’s men get to them?
The action in “New Dragon Gate Inn” starts almost immediately with a battle in the dusty desert.
Most of the action in this film is hyper-real with lots of trampette-assisted leaps and wirework. However, there are still some very impressive physical skills on display, not least the archery and swordsmanship performed on the back of some very fast moving horses. This is also true of the next major action scene, with much of the sword fighting taking place on horseback as the rebels try to save the children. The camerawork is shot mostly from the ground looking up, and there are lots of quick cuts, giving the scene a sense of panic and chaos.
When Yau Mo-yan attacks the on-looking Cao, played by Donnie Yen, he barely moves a muscle, remaining sat in his throne and using two fingers to defend himself! He dispatches three of his henchman to eliminate Yau whilst he waits for his “big fish” to arrive. The combat in this scene sets the standard for what is to come, with some extremely rapidly performed somersaults and butterfly twists, inter-cut with the physics-defying wirework. The dusty environments provide a natural “power powder” used so often in Hong Kong action scenes, accentuating the speed and energy of each move even more.
Maggie Cheung’s introduction as Jade gives a brief glimpse of her deadly skills with throwing darts, as she stylishly dispatches a punter. Her skills are revealed further in a sensuous duel with Brigitte Lin in which they jump and twist gracefully in slow motion around each other, battling to strip their clothes!
When Cao’s officials start to suspect Jade and the rebel residents of the inn, the interior fight scenes incorporate just as much wirework. Walls, tables, chairs and posts are all used as springboards to fly about the rooms. A night time duel progresses to the exterior of the inn, with Yao and Cao’s official both fighting with double-straight swords. There is some excellent sword work here in between the wire-enhanced leaps.
As Cao’s army arrives to lay siege to the inn, there is a full on brawl, and this time the action is much more grounded. Yen Shi-kwan, who was so good as the street-performing kung fu master in “Once Upon a Time in China”, has an excellent battle using the two-handed long sword.
When Cao arrives they have saved the best for last. Donnie Yen’s skills are put to full use in an astonishing desert duel against Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin. There is a rich mix of genuine physical ability as the fighters twist, sweep and somersault around each other fantastically as they fly through the air and even under the desert sand. The whole scene is shot at a breakneck pace, and is arguably the highlight of the movie.
I remember the first time I saw “New Dragon Gate Inn” on VHS back in the mid-nineties. Initially, I found the wirework to be way over-the-top and off-putting. At the conclusion of the film though I found I had still quite enjoyed myself!
If you want realistic martial arts action, or even a film demonstrating recognisable kung fu styles, this probably isn’t for you. In the West, our heroes, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man etc. can all fly about and run up walls, and Chinese heroes are no different. The choreography is bursting with energy, but is mostly fantastical, as the participants are quite obviously pulled up into the air on wires. The sword work is excellent when the fighters are on the ground, and there are some nice unassisted acrobatic moves in some scenes.
However, “New Dragon Gate Inn” has an engaging plot with some very black humour running throughout, and there is a lot to enjoy here. Maggie Cheung steals the show as the confident, witty and tarty landlady with her “Sweeney Todd” style sideline. Tony Leung Ka-fai and Brigitte Lin bring a sense of worthiness to their roles as the rebel leaders. Donnie Yen camps it up in little more than a cameo, book-marking the start and the end of the movie, although he is involved in the best action sequence.
There are a few jokes in there of questionable taste, and some of the violence drifts into unnecessary gore, but if you enjoyed the swordplay of films like “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain” or “Swordsman II”, you will enjoy this. Aside from the action, the story is quite fun and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to envisage this film as a Sergio Leone-plotted Western.
- Brigitte Lin performed most of her own action scenes. She was injured twice during filming, once with a serious cut to her hand that required several stitches, and also when she was struck in the eye by an arrow.
- Yuen Woo-ping’s brother, Yuen Cheung-yan appears as “Iron”. He is a martial arts choreographer in his own right, and worked on the movies “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Matrix” sequels.
- The three main stars Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin reunited two years later for Wong Kar-wai’s acclaimed wuxia project “Ashes of Time”.
- Brigitte Lin disguises herself as a man in “New Dragon Gate Inn”. She also crossed genders in “Swordsman II & III” and “Peking Opera Blues.