The most direct comparison one could make for 1973’s The Fate of Lee Khan is the drinking scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or the cramped confines of The Hateful 8. The setting is the same, taking place almost entirely within the walls of an inn, with the tension layered on in big, heaped spoonfuls.
This particular wuxia (a genre of film focusing on the deeds of so-called martial heroes in China) outing is brought to us by the famous King Hu who was responsible for such films as A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn, and it is something of a successor in spirit to the aforementioned Dragon Inn.
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The info-dump narration at the start is a little off-putting at first, but the film does a great job of laying out who the factions are and who everyone works for. The story revolves around a map which shows the layout of rebel forces in the region, and both the rebels and the ruling Mongol Yuan Dynasty seek to possess it. What follows starts off as something of a slapstick film, with comedy laid on by the shovelful, the story mostly revolving around the goings-on in the Spring Inn and its near all-female staff who have to deal with cheating gamblers, lecherous drunks and the occasional interruption by bandits who make the mistake of thinking the Inn is an easy target. The owner, Miss Wan (called Wendy in the English) brooks no nonsense in her place of business and her able staff (with their selection of chequered pasts) waste no time in putting the men in their place.
When Lee Khan, accompanied by his fearsome and ferocious sister, arrives, however, the tone shifts radically into a taut suspense film as rebels and Mongol troops manoeuvre around each other, both trying to expose the other and gain possession of the map. There’s lots of knowing glances and whispered conversations, everyone eyeing everyone else up with barely-contained suspicion and disdain.
There’s plenty of fighting on offer to spice things up, but this is a wuxia film, not a chop-socky movie. While the fight scenes are choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung, the camerawork for them is… not great. Often shot far too close, with some interesting choices of camera angles in some scenes making it difficult to keep track of what’s going on. The fighting on display here is serviceable, moving the plot along nicely, but the focus of this story is the political intrigue, not the martial arts skills.
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Luckily Lee Khan (Feng Tien) is well worth the wait, dominating the scenes that he’s in with effortless menace and confidence, backed up by his sister Hai Mu-tan (Mao Ying. No, not that one. No Jack Burton to be seen here), the pair come across as a formidable duo, more than capable of completing the task they have been set, and woe betide any who get in their way.
Eureka have, once again, done a lovely job here with this Blu-ray release. The 2K restoration is gorgeous to look at, there’s a new commentary track by Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns and a video essay from David Cairns looking into the film. There’s also Mandarin and English audio tracks to choose from, and English subtitles that seem to sometimes only bear a passing resemblance to the English dub version! That said, fans of the wuxia genre and King Hu’s work should definitely pick this up as a fine example of the genre.
The Fate of Lee Khan is out now from Eureka Entertainment.