Take a half-dozen eunuchs, four ex-thieves, two soldiers, and one sex-starved inn owner and you have the cinematic tour de force that is “Dragon Inn.” Filmed in beautiful rural China, our protagonists fight to the bitter end to preserve the power of the emperor in this most-famous of kung fu movies. Any aficionado can tell you, “Dragon Inn” is one of the best martial arts movies ever to grace the screen.

But first, a quick note on kung-fu films is in order. The martial art genre values spectacle over substance.

First and foremost the audience should be blown away by the feats of martial skill and impossible athletic motions. Secondary is plot, and it is a rare gem indeed that has both of these qualities. “Dragon Inn” is one of these films.

Those who are familiar with the director Tsui Hark of “Once Upon a Time in China” and “A Chinese Ghost Story” will recognize his cinematic hallmarks of awe-inspiring scenery, fully developed themes and quick cuts.

Another feature of “Dragon Inn” is the – unfortunately all too rare in kung-fu films – coherent and enjoyable plot.

The film features four well-known actors, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin and Donnie Yen – all veterans of the kung-fu scene. Tony Leung does a spectacular job with his portrayal of Chow Wai-On, a loyal supporter of the emperor, torn between two women.

Cheung does an excellent job as the fiery innkeeper, delighting in the seduction of men as well as in the acquisition of money.

Lin is the only disappointing actress of the bunch, playing a subdued role as companion and lover of Leung. Perhaps my disappointment stems from her well-known roles in such films as “The Bride with White Hair,” in which she received numerous accolades from both the press and fans.

Yen is on his usual stride, performing amazing kung-fu while maintaining that cold, calculating evil we accept from all villains.

The film begins with a brief historical explanation, and quickly segues into the East Chamber – the eunuch branch of the government – displaying its newest weapons, one of which has a remarkable similarity to the Patriot Arrow in “Robin Hood – Men in Tights.”

Quickly the film moves on to display the corruption and intrigue in the palace, and places our protagonists, Cheung and Yen, in the middle of it all. With awe-inspiring “wire-fu” – kung-fu exaggerated by wires allowing mind-boggling leaps and feats of athletic prowess – our heroes give it their all against these “East Chamber Dogs.”

The finale of this movie is perhaps the best end of any kung-fu film. You may be a bit shocked, even appalled, by the ending but rest assured, any kung-fu aficionado will tell you- this is not a scene to miss.

Despite the gore and violence, this is a romantic kung-fu film, enjoyable to martial-arts lovers and film lovers alike. Probably the best Hong Kong movie you’ve never seen, “Dragon Inn” should be the film you reach for the next time you are at Blockbuster.

Filler can be reached at cfiller@campustimes.org.

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