'The Fate of Lee Khan': Film Review
Wuxia master King Hu's 1973 follow-up to the Cannes-lauded 'A Touch of Zen' is restored for a U.S. theatrical run.
Following the lead of his 1967 Dragon Inn, one in a string of influential wuxia films he made at the end of the '60s, the late Taiwanese filmmaker King Hu went back to the roadhouse to envision The Fate of Lee Khan: The lively 1973 film is mostly confined to a single inn (the Spring Inn, this time) where a handful of women deal ably with every sort of unruly customer, including those who have armies at their disposal. Just restored by Film Movement for a U.S. theatrical run, the pic should see its stock rise among genre fans in the West, who have long revered Hu's Come Drink With Me and Cannes-lauded A Touch of Zen.
Though its historic specifics may be unfamiliar to most American viewers, the template of a secret resistance to empire is easily grasped, and here it's more fun than usual: The title character (Feng Tian) is an official in the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol force that ruled China for about a century after the rise of Kublai Khan. It's the dynasty's waning years, as rural communities grow increasingly resistant to the foreigners' rule; rebels lurk everywhere. Unfortunately for Khan, they control the inn he's about to use as his temporary headquarters.
The inn is run by worldly Miss Wan (Li Li-hua), a middle-aged woman who's as in-charge as any Wild West madam, but who quickly corrects any customer who presumes she's running a brothel. No: The four new women she has hired are only there to serve wine and food — and to knock the hell out of any customer who gets out of line.
Whispers of a possible visit from Lee Khan start the picture off, but Fate devotes a good chunk of its time just to observing Wan and her staff, enjoying the way the women (all of whom have disreputable pasts) handle everything from drunken come-ons to holdup attempts. This material alone could have made a very enjoyable feature, and some viewers will wish it had: Though we get glimpses of the waitresses' individual personalities — the former bandit called Lilac (Helen Ma) has a hell of a temper, for instance — we're barely starting to get to know them when the movie doubles and then triples its cast of characters. In a happier universe, these five women would have played their characters in a string of films after putting Lee Khan in his place.
But there are epic fights to be set up. (Or hadn't you noticed that Angela Mao, the kung fu star sometimes known as "Lady Whirlwind," was one of those waitresses? Did you think she was just here to pour tea?) After some male spies come through the inn to pass along bits of news — Khan has his own spies, and we don't always know who they are — the leader arrives with his entourage and kicks all the commoners out of the dining area. He's in the area to pick up a map of the army's war plans, and our heroes intend to steal it from him to help the rebellion.
Though its fights are choreographed by the legendary action director Sammo Hung, making liberal use of cartwheels and hidden trampolines, contemporary viewers may decide they aren't Fate's main attraction. Foley art in these scenes is yuk-worthy even by the standards of the era, and the action is often framed more closely than you'd like. More exciting is Hu's handling of the minutes before violence erupts: His staging and editing pinballs our attention back and forth around the small inn, as conspirators furtively communicate with each other or gauge how to respond to the suspicions of Khan and his underlings. These masterful sequences are a delight, and make a brilliant transition from the hangout pleasures of Khan's first half to the big exterior set piece that will end the film.
Production company: Golden Harvest Company
Distributor: Film Movement Classics
Cast: Li Li-hua, Angela Mao, Helen Ma, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao
Director: King Hu
Screenwriters: King Hu, Wang Chung
Director of photography: Chen Chao Yung
Editor: Leung Wing-Chan
Composer: Joseph Koo
In Mandarin, 105 minutes