Watching Dragon Inn

// 9 January 2013

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A couple of days ago, I asked on Twitter if anyone knew of any feminist bloggers writing about wuxia films (a genre of Chinese period drama that revolves around martial arts and heroism). I was retweeted a few times – implying I’m not the only one interested – but didn’t receive even a single recommendation.

That was a bit disappointing – I want to be reading knowledgeable writing about wuxia from social justice bloggers.

Over the holidays, I watched three versions one film: it all began in 1967 with a Taiwan movie called Dragon Gate Inn.

The plot is quite complicated, and involves a plan by a high-powered ‘eunuch’ to ambush a political rival at an inn in the middle of the desert, back in the Ming Dynasty. I won’t try and explain the plot or who everyone is, but one of the highlights is Polly Shang Kwan as half of a brother-sister team come to interfere with the ambush:


She was only 17 in this film – and went on to become one of the big stars of the ’60s and ’70s.

But in 1992 the movie was remade in Hong Kong by as Dragon Inn, the female parts are beefed up and multiply.

Brigitte Lin plays a female warrior, presenting herself as a man, who rescues two children. The brilliant Maggie Cheung, meanwhile, plays the inn owner – who spends all her time trying to seduce people (including, kind of, Brigitte Lin’s character).

In 2011, a 3D ‘reimagining’ of the movie, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, was released. And it has even more decent female roles.

In fact it includes a phalanx of other female warriors whose presence is – powerfully- unremarked upon.

Zhou Xun plays Ling Yanqiu. Here she is in the middle of rescuing Jin Xiangyu (Mavis Fan), a palace maid who is about to be executed because she has got pregnant:


Then there is Kwai Lun-mei, playing Zhang Xiao Wen – “tribal princess” (yes, it’s quite possible there is something problematic going on here!)


She had just got into a fight with these guys, who are looking for the palace maid:

Two men look menacing

And, yes, the movie passes the Bechdel test.

As Catherine Gomes points out in this essay, female warriors have always been part of the wuxia tradition- and the folk tales and operas that inspired it. Even now, in post-Buffy, where ‘kick ass action heroine’ is itself a problematic stereotype of Hollywood, this feels refreshing.

Haywire came out of Hollywood in 2011 – it was notable in part because it starred former mixed martial artist Gina Carano. It’s excellent, but yet again she is one lone kick-ass woman – I’m not sure from memory she even has a single conversation with another woman, let alone anything that would scrape past Bechdel.

Watching the Dragon Inn movies, I can’t help but wonder about the layers of context that I am missing. Obviously, I’m viewing these films through a limited, ahistorical gaze, and I’m certainly missing a lot (not least, what Chinese feminists make of it.) In fact, my general ignorance of everything about China probably can’t be overstated!

I’m writing this despite this massive gap in my knowledge because I think it’s always worth flagging up good entertainment with decent female characters. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon got a lot of English-language commentary because it was a big international release, but before and since there have been loads and loads of wuxia films come out that would be interesting to talk about and read about.

Any recommendations?

Comments From You

SexierThanThou // Posted 15 January 2013 at 3:05 pm

I recognise that I’ve spent (read: wasted) far too much of my life on film and MA, but it caught me by surprise to see such a piece on The F Word.

On principal, I refuse to recommend any Wuxia movies (I’ll not bother articulating my hatred any further), but there are a handful of decent Women in MA movies that are worth checking out, as well as a select few chick-ass-kickers in East Asian cinema:

Supercop (Police Story 3) is a Jackie Chan movie, but the balls-to-the-wallacity of the Michelle Yeoh makes it worthwhile. She doesn’t quit outdo the great man, but, damn, she is gutsy.

Lady Snowblood (Tarantino’s obviously a fan)

(perfect segue) Kill Bill Vol 1 (but everyone’s seen it)

DOA (for cheesy, brainless, Troll 2-type fun)

Chocolate (JeeJa Yanin is no Tony Jaa, but she’s still awesome)

Wing Chun (the remake, even though it’s highly confused and pretty stupid)

So Close (same level of brain activity as DOA, also unintentionally hilarious)

Yes, Madam

Heroic Trio (cult classic, but I’m no fan)

Naked Weapon (fucked up, in its own way)

Ghost in the Shell (The first and Solid State society) and the Appleseed movies… if you want to gravitate t’wards anime and forego pure MA.

…And any piece piece of fluff/nonsense from Cynthia Rothrock.

(Not many will pass Bechdel, but Sucker Punch obliterates Bechdel and we all know how that turned out.)

Jess McCabe // Posted 15 January 2013 at 3:12 pm

@SexierThanThou – Huh, your wuxia hatred bemuses me! But thanks for the recommendations anyway. I’ve seen and liked some of these.

SexierThanThou // Posted 17 January 2013 at 2:45 pm

I suppose wire-fu gained a lot of traction with Jet Li’s ascendancy and was arguably the standard pre-Bruce Lee, but most martial arts practitioners dislike assisted kung-fu for ruining the *purer* spectacle of an actual skills showcase. The floating is distracting for a lot of people and anathema to a lot of martial artists (and I use that term loosely). Zhang Yimou cashed in on what Ang Lee repackaged and globalised with Crouching Tiger, but die-hard fans of Hong Kong cinema, in my estimation, are more partial to seeing perfect lines, traditional shapes, baller execution and intricate choreography rather than a dude on a harness.

When fans reminisce about their favourite movies they always cite that one standout fight from whatever movie they’re talking about… the finale in Knockabout, Lee’s speed vs O’Hara, the three-ways in Dragons forever. Who really remembers any stand-out wire-fu? The best exhibition in Crouching Tiger? When Yeoh and Zhang tussled without the use of wires.

Wire-fu and Wuxia are, sadly, symbiotic and wire-fu gets a lot of hate. In my experience anyway. Maybe I’m blinded by hatred. /rambling panegyric

lth // Posted 20 January 2013 at 11:53 am

As someone who is a definite fan of women kicking ass in movies, I have to agree that it’s thin pickings.

JeeJa Yanin’s other movie, “Raging Phoenix”, is confusing and trippy and has some excellent fight scenes. Outside of JeeJa there are two other female roles which although they don’t get much screen time are quite important ones. I really liked Raging Phoenix.

Jet Li’s “Hero” features Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi; the story focusses on Jet Li’s character but the women martial artists make a good account of themselves. There are no other women characters besides them, though. The film is otherwise visually stunning and very well constructed.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” is more of a drama, but I remember the Empress in that being particularly good.

I’ve spent far too long now looking through my IMDB scores and am sadder than ever at the lack of decent female action stars.

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 January 2013 at 1:56 pm


The Four is a good one from last year – it has quite a few amazing female characters, including one female character in a wheelchair, and also a whole cadre of female police officers. Apparently it didn’t get a great critical reception, and it is somewhat ridiculous, but I don’t see that as a downside!!

Have you seen The Assassins? Watched this the other day – and I guess it doesn’t count as wuxia because it’s very unheroic, but it does have a number of kick ass women in it. They don’t do *that* much fighting, if that’s your main thing, but still – there’s a whole school of assassins being trained that’s basically 50/50 men/women! On the other hand, it has a quite upsetting rape scene in it :(

I also recently saw Red Cliff 1&2 – brilliant films, from a couple of years ago I think. They were directed by John Woo! There’s a really amazing scene where these two guys bond through a long jam session. Not very many great female characters, but in the second part Sun Shangxiang has a big role, infiltrating the enemy camp, etc.

But, yeah, Maggie Cheung has made some really great movies, obviously. Moon Warriors is still one of my all time favourites. There were loads made in the 1980s/90s with one or two very good female warrior characters.

lth // Posted 20 January 2013 at 2:14 pm

Thanks, I’ll look out for them!

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