Brigitte Lin's tragic nobility versus Maggie Cheung's spunky charm. It's a feast!
Dragon Inn is one of my favourite movies of all time. Two of the greatest actresses in history square off with wildly different characters in a madcap action film with gruesome dismemberment, high-flying wire action, stripteases and even singing and dancing! It's got it all.
I'll always have a special fondness for this film because it is one of the first Hong Kong films we watched, in Japan. Which meant we watched it in Cantonese with Japanese subtitles. Neither speaking Cantonese nor reading Japanese, it was not perfectly straightforward to follow the story.
And the story of Dragon Inn is pretty convoluted. The first chunk of the film is a great big slab of undigested exposition, and if you don't get that, there's a lot of confusion ahead for you.
We did our level best to keep up with the story, and even invented our own storyline to go with the completely loony action on screen. That captured my imagination so profoundly that I wrote a 130-page screenplay based on our interpretation of the story. Which it turned out was quite a bit different from the actual film, now that we've seen it with English subtitles.
Which I think indicates that Dragon Inn is getting at something elemental. It's funny, but it's never really occured to me to wonder what the movie is about.
I mean, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen. Do you really need more of a reason for a film to exist? But okay, I'm game. What is Dragon Inn about?
Well, on first consideration (I'm pretty much making this up as I go, so hang on), the story revolves around two women's efforts to impose their desires on the world. Maggie, as Jade, wants her independence. She wants to run her little kingdom exactly as she sees fit, without having to kowtow to any external power. Brigitte's Mo-Yan (I can't type that without hearing Tony Leung crying out in anguish, "Mo-Yaaaaaaaaaaaannnnn!!!!") wants to free her country from the tyranny of the eunuch chancellors who run everything. They both end up making big ol' sacrifices, in true HK fashion, but I think you can argue that Mo-Yan's sacrifices (her man, her life) are sacrifices of things OTHER than her driving desire (the freedom of her country), whereas Jade gives up the very thing she spends most of the movie trying to preserve -- the security of her inn, her domain.
Jade discovers a more selfless desire and a willingness to submit to that need; Mo-Yan had that from the start.
But what does that mean? At the end of the film, Jade rides away from her burning inn, and it is definitely our impression that she's not just going to go start up another. She's become a complete person now, she's grown up to occupy the same sort of heroic nature that Mo-Yan and Wai-On display from the very beginning of the film. I think you can argue that the reason she's acquired this nature is from her association with them. She's seen them make sacrifices for each other, and for what they believe in.
So maybe Dragon Inn tells us that striving for our vision of a better world, giving up whatever it takes, including our own lives, in that struggle, is worthwhile. Even if our efforts don't bring about the changes we seek, it is by displaying our heroic nature that we can bring out the heroic nature of people around us.
When Mo-Yan agrees to go along with Wai-On's plan to marry Jade, she reigns in her jealousy and anger and puts her faith in the man she loves. Even when she sees her flute in Jade's belt, though she suffers, she does not waver from her chosen direction. Jade, for all her flirting and sauciness, cannot make Mo-Yan give up.
Nor can she deny that she herself is loved. When the barbarian chef returns to die with her in the inn, Jade perhaps realises that she is responsible to something larger than herself. That unwittingly she has formed a community that she cannot help but be protective of, and her protectiveness gives the lie to her claims of pure self-interest.
Surrounded as she is by examples of people willing to make sacrifices for things outside of themselves, and faced with her own emotional attachment to things outside herself, Jade is able to put aside her petty dreams of independence and seek a more mature role in a larger world that needs her help.
And gets in some sweet fight scenes while she does so.