After decades lost in the darkest corners of video distribution, on samizdat VHS tapes haphazardly dubbed and cropped, or edited by companies like Miramax and even less reputable organizations, the 21st century has been pretty good for the classics of Chinese-language cinema. At least, for those films in the kung fu genre, kickstarted by Celestial Pictures remastering and restoring the original audio of much of the 60s and 70s Shaw Brothers library in the early 2000s. This has led in turn to a growing recognition in the West of the work of directors like Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh, thanks to quality releases through imprints like the Weinsteins' sadly defunct Dragon Dynasty label. Recently the U.K. company Eureka Video has picked up where they left off, releasing restored version of 80s and 90s classics like the Police Story (1985), Project A (1983) and Once Upon a Time in China (1991–7) movies, along with greats like Drunken Master (1978), Wheels on Meals (1984) and Iron Monkey (1993). When I first started seeking out martial arts movies fifteen years ago, the films of King Hu, universally regarded as milestones in the genre, were almost impossible to find in any kind of decent condition, but over the past couple of years a series of restorations have brought Dragon Gate Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971), Legend of the Mountain (1979) and now The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) to both theatrical and home video screens around the world. There is of course a ton of stuff left to uncover, including vast quantities of non-action films, but it’s safe to say that there has never been a better time to be a fan of Chinese-language cinema in the West than right now.
Lee Khan doesn’t have the reputation of those other three King Hu films, or of Come Drink with Me, his 1966 film that was the first breakout hit of the wuxia boom in Hong Kong cinema, but it probably should. Set almost entirely in a single inn, it forms a kind of trilogy with Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn. All three begin with long introductory sections, establishing the various characters and their relationships, and unmasking them each to the other, while exploring the confined space of a dusty outpost in the middle of nowhere. In Lee Khan, the inn is literally carved into a hillside, though the interior is all wood frames, and it has a back exit, so I guess it must be a narrow hill. Set during the latter years of the Yuan Dynasty—that’s the Mongol one established by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai—a powerful general named Lee Khan and his equally imposing sister travel to this desert inn to buy a MacGuffin from a spy who has infiltrated the camp of a rebel general named Chu Yuan-chang, who would ultimately go on to overthrow the Yuan and establish the Ming Dynasty. Chu’s own spies learn of this betrayal and prepare to intercept Lee Khan at the inn and capture the traitor, recover the map, and assassinate Lee. All of this exposition is related in the film’s breathless first couple of minutes, while the rest of the first half of the film will be spent establishing the primary heroes and the space in which they work.
Li Lihua plays the owner of the inn, and she hires four pretty young women to staff it for her, all of whom turn out to have martial skills to match their criminal pasts. We learn about them as they work, dealing with obnoxious customers, whose vices range from handsiness to cheating at dice to out-and-out robbery. Also frequenting the inn are secret agents for both sides, and the first half of the film comes to a close when the women learn which men are their allies and which ones need to be swiftly dispatched. At the exact midpoint of the film, Lee Khan arrives at the inn.
Li was one of the great stars of Chinese cinema, with a career dating back to 1940s Shanghai cinema but whose highest points came in Hong Kong, in films like Li Han-hsiang’s The Magnificent Concubine, in which she played Yang Kwei-fei (in a story familiar to fans of Kenji Mizuguchi) and Frank Borzage’s China Doll, in which she reputedly became the first Hong Kong actor to star in an American film. Most notable among the younger women is the high-kicking Angela Mao (she plays Peony, the pickpocket with the blue skirt), who was at the time of Lee Khan’s release in 1973 just establishing herself as a major star with films like Hapkido, When Taekwando Strikes, and Lady Whirlwind. All three of those were directed by Huang Feng and co-starred Sammo Hung, who also choreographed, with the latter two being also released in 1973, along with Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, in which Mao memorably played his sister (and Sammo gets just as memorably beaten up by Lee). Hung’s relationship with King Hu dated back at least to A Touch of Zen, but he would have a more prominent behind the scenes role in choreographing Lee Khan, as he did its sister film, The Valiant Ones, shot back to back with Lee Khan but released two years later, and in which Hung also played the primary villain.
The villains in Lee Khan are played by Tien Feng, a longtime Shaw Brothers character actor (he plays the damaged servant in Legend of the Mountain and Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung’s father in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow) and Hsu Feng, who was the star of A Touch of Zen and the evil ghost in Legend of the Mountain and later became a producer, responsible for several classics of 5th Generation Chinese cinema including Red Dust, Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon. She’s also funded the restorations of both A Touch of Zen and Legend of the Mountain. She’s the more menacing of the two—terrifyingly pretty in a white fur hat and with cold, ruthless eyes. Both are immediately suspicious when they arrive at the inn: this is a world in which no one can be trusted and power is a matter of violence.
In this way The Fate of Lee Khan is a world apart from Hu’s more mystical A Touch of Zen or Legend of the Mountain. Even among the “inn” films, Lee Khan is the most realistic: the only nod to wuxia magic comes in a handful of leaps, practical in the inn but abstracted into a series of quickly edited together images of actors in mid-flight, shorn of all reference to land and geography, during the climactic battle. Where Zen and Legend progress from a realistic world to an abstract, spiritual one, Lee Khan never strays from its action-suspense plotting. Nor does Lee Khan stick to the story of a single hero, as Legend does, or a series of single heroes, as in Zen and Come Drink with Me (and Painted Skin , King Hu’s last completed film). Rather it features a collective hero, as every member of the group is as important as every other, with no one taking charge of the plot or the fighting for any length of time.
The closest the film gets to a traditional action hero comes in the form of Roy Chiao, who played the transcendent priest in A Touch of Zen and Indiana Jones’s rival in the opening of Temple of Doom. Chiao is a commanding presence, big and hairy and covered in Mongolian furs, barking orders to everyone on both sides (he’s a double agent). But he ultimately proves no more effective than Mao and the other young women or Li and her more subtle schemes. It takes all of them working together to win, much as it did for the heroes in Dragon Gate Inn, with the difference that here none of the good guys here show up at the last minute, and thus Lee Khan features a more cohesive, egalitarian group.
This can be read as a mundane message of political unity, the ethnically Han Chinese working together to overthrow their imperial overlords, a patriotic story from a director who was born in Beijing, emigrated to Hong Kong after the Communists won the civil war and had his first successes there, but now found himself trying, and failing, to build a new film production company in Taiwan. The Valiant Ones too is a story of collective heroism in the face of outside invasion (Japanese pirates in that case). As was Hu’s first film as solo director, 1965’s Sons of the Good Earth, a story of a village’s struggles in the Anti-Japanese War (with Hu himself as the tough as nails resistance leader).
In its emphasis on the collective, and especially in its use of so many active women heroes, The Fate of Lee Khan is decidedly out of step with the dominant mode of martial arts cinema in the early 1970s. Where Bruce Lee and Chang Cheh (along with his choreographer Lau Kar-leung) were intensely focused on the male body, with scores of shirtless men beating each other bloody in brutal displays of aggression and honor, King Hu (along with Sammo Hung and Angela Mao) was opening up the genre to new kinds of heroism. Hu’s wuxia films usually highlighted women, but where Cheng Pei-pei was ultimately sidelined in Come Drink with Me in favor of her male co-stars, and Lingfeng Shangguan became something of an afterthought in Dragon Gate Inn, and even Hsu Feng retired from the action in A Touch of Zen in favor of Roy Chiao’s magical monk, in Lee Khan the women never relinquish the stage, leading the struggle from beginning to end.
Always out of step with the culture systems of his time, Hu found sporadic success and a lot of frustration as he fashioned his idiosyncratic genre movies, ultimately completing only a fraction of the films his factory-ensconced peers created (he’s responsible for about twelve features as a solo director, which is less than Chang Cheh made just in 1972 and 1973 alone), and after the twin films Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979 was mostly a spent force. But every film he made in those peak years, from 1965–1979, is something special. At long last we’re lucky to have a chance to see them in something close to their original form.