“Out of the frying-pan, inn to the fire…”
Probably best to start with a quick history lesson. In the fourteenth century, part of China was under Mongol rule, but there was a growing movement to oust the occupiers. Leading the battle against the rebels is the titular general, and it appears he has a mole inside their headquarters, who has arranged to pass Khan a crucial map that could derail the rebellion entirely. Learning in advance that Khan will be staying at the Spring Inn, a venue owned by one of their own, Wendy (Li), the freedom fighters set in motion a daring plan to steal back the map, and assassinate Khan before he can take advantage of the information. However, it turns out – as usual! – that there are others at the inn who have agendas of their own, operating undercover on both sides. So when Khan and his sister finally show up, they may be well-aware of what lies in wait for them…
A lot to enjoy here, not least Wendy’s newly-recruited four-pack of waitresses, who all have shady pasts of their own, including a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist, and who are no less adept than Wendy with their fists and feet. The pickpocket, who swipes a pearl off the front of a customer’s hat as he plays dice, is played by Angela Mao in a small but significant role, as it’s her attempt to steal the map out of Khan’s locked case that triggers the climactic outburst of violence. There’s also Khan’s sister, Wan’er (right), played by another King Hu regular, Xu Feng, though this is Hu’s only work to be so heavily femme centered. The first half reminds me of Dragon Inn, made by Hu six years previously (and remade in the nineties), with its tale of shenanigans at a remote inn, on which a motley crew of heroes and villains descend. While generally entertaining, it’s somewhat hard to keep track of who’s doing what and for whose side.
When Khan shows up, the entire dynamic changes, with this movie developing a much clearer focus. Wendy and her allies try to regain control of the key map, while unsure how much Khan and Wan’er know about their plans, and who is on their side. Eventually, one of the rebels is caught in an untenable position and is summarily executed – though Wan’er “charitably” donates a hundred taels of silver “in order to bury her properly.” Such an obvious act of provocation will not go unpunished, and it’s time for all martial arts hell to break lose (or, at least, as close as it could given the era – this was just before Bruce Lee blew the doors off the genre). All of the women here have a strict zero-tolerance policy for nonsense, and are entirely capable of handling themselves. To have one such character would be impressive, but the full half-dozen we have here, indeed pushes this into the stratosphere for its time.
Dir: King Hu
Star: Li Lihua, Han Ying Chieh, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao