It's the middle of the Ming Dynasty. The powerful eunuch Cao (Pai Ying) has killed the Loyal Minister Yu, and Yu's children are exiled to the border, whereupon Cao undertakes efforts to massacre the remants of the family. As Yu's children take refuge in the Dragon Gate Inn, Xiao the righteous swordsman (Shihjun) and the surviving loyalists of Minister Yu engage in a series of battles to the death against the forces of the bloodthirsty eunuch.
Once Upon a Time in the East
- Dragon Inn review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
This movie, which is essentially a first draft of King Hu's masterpiece "A Touch Of Zen", has gained a cult reputation that, unfortunately, is only half-deserved. The action sequences are just fine. In fact, for the time (1967), they're frequently rather more than fine; that was always King Hu's strong suit. Characterization and plot aren't so good. One problem is that the film is trying so hard to be a Taiwanese spaghetti western that it concentrates more on ticking the generic boxes than making any sense whatsoever.
The action mostly occurs in and around what is basically a Mexican cantina, except it's in China, accompanied by a spectacularly bad soundtrack that frequently rips off Ennio Morricone note for note, when it isn't relentlessly sampling Mussorgsky, mostly one very short musical phrase repeated far, far too often. Even the ethnically authentic bits are sampled from traditional Chinese folk-songs, so the "composer" didn't write a note of it, except maybe the extremely annoying wood-block percussion riffs used to indicate that what we're seeing right now is exciting, in case the fact that everybody is hitting everybody else with swords hasn't given us a strong enough hint. I mention it because, as bad soundtracks go, this really is a howling clunker, and if that sort of thing offends you, you should know.
King Hu's trademark feisty young woman who only needs the hero's help because she has trouble fighting multiple armed men all at once when they start running into double figures is memorable without being interesting, because she has so few other character traits that even the hero only manages to notice that she's female for about two seconds before forgetting again. As for the hero, he's literally a hero who just happened to be in the room when he was needed, and that's all there is to him. Oddly, much more effort goes into giving minor characters personalities which are mostly irrelevant because they aren't on screen long enough for it to matter, though it's nice to see a couple of expendable henchmen get so much backstory that they change sides and become major characters after all. But when the bizarrely bleached blond villain suddenly displays ludicrous superpowers that would have allowed him to make this a very short movie if he'd remembered he had them an hour and a half previously, it's a Pythonesque moment just when we're supposed to be taking everything very seriously indeed.
Overall, this is an entertaining action movie, but there isn't one scene that comes within a light-year of the bamboo forest fight in "A Touch Of Zen", and the complete lack of any plot you care about enough to actually remember it ten minutes after it's been explained puts this epic bout of chop-socky firmly in the B-list. It's still fun though. This disk includes an unintentionally humorous featurette in which the ultimate geeky fanboy lists everything wrong with the film and breathlessly explains why it's actually a virtue, while repeatedly name-checking the person who in an ideal world he would be married to, Quentin Tarentino. Whatever some people may think, this doesn't make it a towering artistic triumph.