I doubt that a more entertaining film will play Chicago this summer than The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), which screens three times this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center in a new digital restoration. Lee Khan may not be the greatest work by director King Hu (that would be either Dragon Inn or A Touch of Zen), but it contains so many pleasurable moments that it may be his most satisfying to watch. The film comprises a thrilling mix of comedy, action, and intrigue, combining the joys of multiple genres into a seamless whole. It also centers on the exhilarating—and ever-timely—theme of liberation, not only with regard to oppressed societies in general, but to women in particular. The Chinese-born Hu (who made many of his best films, including this one, in Taiwan) has been justly celebrated for his strong female characters, and Lee Khan contains a good half dozen of them; the women here are assertive, independent, and great fighters to boot. Yet one of the more remarkable things about the film is that it never pronounces its themes too obviously. They’re integrated gracefully into the action, propelling the drama with subtle moral force.
The central conflict of Lee Khan is political as well as moral, and Hu establishes it right away. The year is 1366, and 100,000 rebel soldiers are currently engaged in a war with the army of the oppressive Yuan Dynasty. The title character is the leader of the Yuan army, and with just a few terse lines of narration, Hu reveals him to be shrewd, ruthless, and cruel—you find yourself rooting against him before the action even begins. After introducing Lee Khan (Feng Tien) and his equally villainous sister, the Princess Lee Wan-erh (Feng Hsu), Hu cuts to the film’s central location: Spring Inn, a restaurant-cum-gambling den located in the middle of the northern Chinese desert. Mr. Liu (Nan Chiang), one of the inn’s owners, tells his partner Wan Jen-mi (Li Hua Li as one of Hu’s most noble heroines) that Lee Khan and his men plan to reconnoiter at the establishment before staging a battle against rebel troops stationed nearby and whose secret war plans now rest in the villains’ possession. But the resourceful Wan is already aware of this and has prepared for Lee Khan’s arrival. She’s already hired four resistance fighters to pose as serving girls at the inn with the aim of subverting the general’s visit.
Hu and company take evident delight in setting the scene; indeed Lee Khan succeeds grandly as a workplace comedy before any major suspense occurs. A master of wide-screen composition, the director finds endless ways to present Spring Inn, organizing the employees and their guests in all sorts of dynamic compositions. Hu also stages graceful dolly shots through the inn, conveying a restless sense of movement (which prefigures the exciting fight scenes to come) even when the characters are sitting still. The serving girls all have criminal pasts, and the film generates big laughs in the way they raucously fend off the advances of rowdy male customers. Hu stages a pleasing bit of physical comedy as well when Lilac, a former pickpocket, steals a large pearl off the hat of a gambler, then surreptitiously returns it when Wan Jen-mi catches her in the act. Several of the guests inspire good cheer too, particularly a wandering troubadour who improvises songs about how much he dislikes the inn’s food.
The character comedy quickly gives way to action when three swordsmen show up and try to rob the inn. Wan Jen-mi and the serving girls retaliate in a flash, revealing themselves to be expert martial arts fighters as they chase off the robbers. The scene, which anticipates the movie’s breathtaking climax, is a little showcase for the fight choreography of Sammo Kam-Bo Hung (credited here as Chu Yuan-lung). It also features one of Hu’s most delightful innovations: when the actors jump or flip through the air, they seem like they’re taking flight, thanks to Hu’s use of hidden trampolines. Once the director and company bend the laws of physics, it seems like anything can happen in Lee Khan, and in fact the serving girls soon execute some more remarkable stunts when they intimidate a couple of guests who are cheating at the gambling table.
Hu punctuates the action-comedy with moments of great suspense, which he achieves, in Hitchcockian fashion, by attaching narrative weight to the smallest details. Liu tells Wan Jen-mi early on that not only is Lee Khan sending spies to Spring Inn in advance of his visit, but that more undercover resistance fighters are on their way too. The anti-imperial fighters will reveal themselves, Liu explains, by paying their hostesses with specially marked coins, and this bit of information imbues every time a customer takes out money with a sense of breathless anticipation. Hu achieves similar effects with small objects later in the film when Lee Khan and his entourage show up and the team of resistance fighters works together to retrieve the stolen rebels’ plans from a locked chest in the general’s room. This passage, which occurs after all the guests have revealed their true natures, merits comparison with the revered wine-cellar sequence in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), as Hu cuts brilliantly between Lee Khan’s room, where one of the serving girls tries as quietly as possible to break into the chest, and the dining area of the inn, where the other rebels cunningly distract the general’s men. Many critics have noted that Hu helped rejuvenate the wuxia genre by incorporating lessons of Hollywood-style editing, and I’d argue that his success in this area was seldom more effective than it is here.
Hu rarely employed his artistry for its own sake—it was always in the service of advancing narrative and theme—and the plan-stealing sequence is masterful in how it moves the story forward and crystallizes the film’s core subject of teamwork. That theme reaches its fruition in the final 15 minutes of Lee Khan, a breathless succession of swordplay and martial arts fighting that represents some of the most joyous filmmaking in the history of action cinema. Without revealing the identities of the rebel spies and Lee Khan’s men, let me say that all the characters acquit themselves daringly, each one displaying willingness to sacrifice him- or herself for their cause. Hu clearly favors the rebels (Lee Khan wouldn’t be such a rousing experience if he didn’t), and his preference can be felt in how he characterizes the hero as a group, which honors the concept of collective resistance to tyranny. (By contrast Lee Khan and Lee Wan-erh are dominating, larger-than-life presences, which speaks to the power-obsessed evil of tyrants.) The director still grants entertaining traits to each of the heroes and heroines; Lee Khan exudes charisma in the headstrong assertiveness of the serving girls and the devil-may-care bravado of their male counterparts. The many fun behavioral details add enjoyment to what is already an embarrassment of pleasures. v