But soon a mysterious stranger arrives and wreaks his own swift justice. It turns out he's a friend of the innkeeper, and he's backed by his nephew and niece--the latter a remarkable young woman who, as in all subsequent wuxia offerings, including Crouching Tiger, is an even more artistic fighter than the men. Gradually, the forces on both sides decimate one another in a series of skirmishes that punctuate stretches of melodramatic intrigue. In what became standard wuxia style, the fights are staged as set pieces with less regard for realism than for the orchestration of flying bodies. It's an oddly ritualistic approach to mayhem--like boxing matches with theatrical entrances, hidden weapons, and delicious trickery.
Traditional Chinese instruments punctuate the action with keening, screeching, or thumping sounds, like an avant-garde opera. There are little snatches of wonderful camerawork, such as a low-angle shot of a protagonist through a hole in a bamboo hat he's putting on. The color of the print I saw was surprisingly pristine and, though nothing is subtle and the "special effects" look rudimentary to current eyes, there's a rough beauty to Dragon Gate Inn and a satisfaction to watching an art form in its birthing.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]