In my ongoing quest to revisit all the best Hong Kong martial arts films of the 90s, New Dragon Gate Inn [Sun Lung Moon Hak Chan] is next in line. It's one of those films I fondly remember as being fun, entertaining and well-made, though without actually remembering many specifics. It's never easy predicting how these rewatches are going to pan out, but somehow I felt good about this one. Turns out my intuition was right.
New Dragon Gate Inn is a loose remake of King Hu's classic Dragon Inn (1967), one of the first big classics the genre has on offer. If you're not big on martial arts but you do enjoy the occasional arthouse film, you might remember Hu's film from Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Don't expect to recognize too much from Hu's film here though, while the trio of directors kept the basic setup, New Dragon Gate Inn is a typical 90s Hong Kong martial arts flick through and through.
Or at least, it feels like one. Because one thing remarkably absent from New Dragon Gate In is the actual martial arts. While there are some action scattered throughout, they're extremely sparse. Safe the final bout, people expecting lots of fighting should be aware Lee, Hark and Ching were more interested in the ever-changing power dynamics that happen between several groups of people visiting the inn. Even so, there may not be much in the way of fist and leg action, New Dragon Gate Inn still manages to feel like a bona fide martial arts film, an accomplishment in itself.
The story revolves around a desert-based inn, not too surprisingly situated near the Dragon Gate. A group of noble heroes is chased there by a group of evil henchmen, all of them are forced to spend the night at the inn while bad weather sweeps the region. The innkeeper isn't very trustworthy either, seducing stray visitors and chopping them up Sweeney Todd style. It makes for a tense atmosphere as everyone is trying to get the upper hand while keeping up appearances.
If you've seen some 90s Hong Kong martial arts films, you'll know what to expect on the visual side of things. Moody lighting, strong use of color, energetic and dynamic camera work and lots of crazy camera angles. There's a lot of vigor and aggression in the camera work to make up for the lack of subtlety, which isn't a bad thing when doing an action(-like) film. The first half hour is a little shaky, but once the inn becomes the primary setting of the film there are some fine visual highlights.
The soundtrack is not as outspoken, but that's a given. It features the same traditional instruments and compositions you've come to expect from Hong Kong martial arts films. Because it's so predictable, it's almost a genre element in and of itself, immediately conveying a notion of space, time and genre. In that sense the soundtrack is pretty effective, but afterwards you'll be hardpressed to remember anything specific. It's just another generic and replaceable collection of tracks, which is a little disappointing.
The acting on the other hand is pretty spot on. It's well overstated and not very subtle at all, then again that's what a film like this calls for. The plot is pretty silly and you need a group of seasoned actors who are able to combine tough, ass-kicking characters with an appropriate level of tongue in cheek. Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung are both stellar, Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Donnie Yen feature in supporting roles. Yen in particular is pretty funny as top evil henchman, but it's the leading ladies who deserve the most credit.
There are some shorter action scenes at the very beginning of the film and one major showdown at the end, but even those aren't martial arts in the traditional sense. Even so, the way people move, the way it's shot and edited, the pacing and the acting, everything feels like vintage 90s martial arts. It's an interesting and somewhat surprising blend, especially when you're into the kind of (dark) comedy and ever-shifting power dynamics that form the basis of New Dragon Gate Inn.
Because of this, it may not be the easiest recommend, but if you like 90s Hong Kong martial arts I'm pretty certain you'll end up finding something to love here. The actors are on point, the film looks great and there's a lot of fun to be had, especially whenever the films endorses its own mean streak. It also held up surprisingly well over time, so if you're looking for some great early 90s Hong Kong cinema and you haven't seen this one yet, make it a top priority.