A Touch of Zen was the first of King Hu’s films to play in London cinemas, but The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) was the first King Hu film I watched – at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road in 1975. The first thirty minutes of deceptively casual knockabout comedy build into nearly an hour of almost unbearable tension. It was the first martial arts film I’d ever seen, though, as I later learned, it’s far from typical of the genre.
In any case, the skilful blend of comedy and tragedy, Sammo Hung’s fight choreography and – above all – the inclusion of six great action roles for women all made a massive impression on me. I treasured memories of it for decades until I was able to watch it again on a 1999 widescreen VHS from Made in Hong Kong, and concluded it had lost none of its power, though younger aficionados of martial arts and wuxia may now find the action a little rudimentary.
More recently, I found it included in a Region 1 DVD set called Martial Arts Movie Marathon 2. The quality is uneven, but it’s in widescreen with English subtitles, and still a thousand times preferable to the dubbed version on YouTube. On my last viewing, I decided to analyse why I found it so tense. (Some of the details here are taken from Verina Glaessner’s synopsis in the January 1975 edition of Monthly Film Bulletin.) I’ve tried to outline the structure of the story while avoiding spoilers (the secret identities mentioned here are made obvious from the outset), though – if you’re like me – you’ll prefer to see the film for yourself before reading any of this.
The action takes place in 1366. Mongol invaders rule Yuan Dynasty China, so the basic conflict is between evil Mongols and heroic Chinese resistance fighters. The formidable Lee Khan, Baron of Honan and head of the Mongol spy network, obtains a rebel war map from a Chinese traitor, and travels to Shensi Province with his equally formidable sister; now the rebels must get it back. (The fact that Mr Big has a sister, and that they’re very close, inevitably made me think of Scarface and Sweet Smell of Success, though this sister is in a class of her own, and there’s no suggestion of incestuous hanky-panky.)
Early on it’s established that Lee Khan prefers to stay in local hostelries rather in official residences. Wan Jen-Mi (called “Wendy” in the subtitled of the first print I saw) is warned in advance that he will be coming to her inn, the Spring Inn, and to expect some of his spies in advance. Thus the set-up establishes a classic MacGuffin (the map), primes us to expect the arrival of the chief antagonist, and implies that each character we meet in the interim could be more than they seem.
The final showdown is set out in the wide open spaces of the desert, but most of the film is set within the confines of the inn. The potentially theatrical setting, though, is filmed with cinematic use of the frame, and fluid movements linking the ground floor of the inn and its upper storey, which some of the characters are able to reach by jumping (presumably with the help of out-of-frame trampolines). The limited location is suggestive of a sitcom, or of the classic strategy by smart first-time film-makers of simplifying logistics by setting their story in a single location (Reservoir Dogs, Ex Machina).
Already, this is cracking stuff. Wan Jen-Mi is a a woman in control; she keeps trouble off her back by granting sexual favours to the local magistrate, but runs her inn with a will of iron. The rebels identify themselves to one another via sets of coins; I’m not sure how these are any different from regular coins, but clearly they are.
In preparation for Lee Khan’s arrival, she hires four female rebels to pose as waitresses. “When they heard about the idea of killing Mongols, they got really excited.” Just the way these young women casually flip faceclothes or throw coins suggests they have hidden talents; we are informed they have “shady pasts” – one was a bandit, another a pickpocket. In fact, only one of the “waitresses” seems to show much social skill (she’s adept at flirting), and much of the knockabout comedy of the opening half-hour springs from their belligerent attitude to awkward customers – some of whom may be spies for the Mongols.
Also introduced into the mix are rebels posing as Wan Jen-Mi’s accountant cousin and his servant. Amid all the assorted brawls, the exposure of a cheat at the gambling table, and various other intrigues, everyone seems to have a secret identity. Will one of the waitresses inadvertently reveal her true nature to the wrong customer? At this stage, the film is reminiscent of The Hotel Inspectors episode of Fawlty Towers.
But there’s a shadow looming over the hi-jinx – the imminent arrival of Lee Khan and his entourage. It’s always a great strategy, I find, to let the audience know that someone is coming… and then keep them waiting for the expected arrival, which in Lee Khan’s case is a thrilling one. The staff and customers of the inn fall silent as they see henchmen at the door, then another set of henchmen, then another… until Lee Khan and his sister finally step into the doorway.
This takes place at around the fifty-two minute mark, which is when the stakes go up. Suddenly, we realise our heroes – who up until now looked relaxed and in control of the situation – are balancing on a knife-edge. The sister is a veritable ice princess who, when asked what she thinks of a situation, says, “The law calls for a beheading.” And so the casualties mount up. Lee Khan is no mug – he is well aware that he might be surrounded by enemies in disguise. An almost throwaway shot shows him testing his tea before drinking it.
At one point, two of the henchmen begin to play a game of Go, referred to as “chess” in the subtitles. Suffice to say this part of the film is a game of cat and mouse, tactics versus countertactics in a sort of Long Con, in which nothing and no-one is as they appear, and any slip could be fatal.
The story essentially falls into three acts: 1) the mostly sitcom set-up, with hints of trouble to come; 2) the nail-biting tension as identities are probed; and 3) the showdown as masks are dropped, the gloves are off, and the martial arts break out. King Hu takes no prisoners; there are survivors… but not many.
(I suspect Quentin Tarantino drew on Act 2 for the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds, which builds a similar tension amid an imbroglio of secret identities, leading to a bloodbath.)
It’s to the film-makers’ credit that in a sprawling cast of characters like this, we can easily identify the individuals. Wan Jen-Mi is played by Li Li Hua, whose mostly Chinese filmography also includes Frank Borzage’s China Doll. The “waitresses” have helpfully colour-coded uniforms; in some subtitles they’re identified as “Lilac”, “Peony”, “Chili” and “Peach”. The actress most Western viewers are likely to be familiar with is Angela Mao (Bruce Lee’s doomed sister in Enter the Dragon, and star of Hapkido and When Taekwondo Strikes), who plays “Peony” the pickpocket, and gets to show off some fancy moves.
The ice princess is played by an unsmiling Hsu Feng, the heroine of A Touch of Zen. The vaguely heroic looking fake accountant is played by Bai Ying, who also starred in King Hu’s The Valiant Ones (1975, which I’m currently trying to track down; if anyone knows of a decent DVD, please let me know), as did Roy Chiao, who plays Lee Khan’s most important henchman.
I enjoyed this last viewing of The Fate of Lee Khan so much that I’ve decided to watch King Hu’s other films again – or at least the ones I can get hold of. So this post might be the first in a series. Watch this space.