The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)

Posted in Reviews by - May 10, 2020
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)

Another vibrant wuxia film from King Hu, his first Hong Kong picture for Golden Harvest after returning from Taiwan after the commercial failure of A Touch of Zen. This carries all the familiar hallmarks of a King Hu mystery; classy costumes, a stellar cast, sophisticated story-telling, and an ‘inn’ setting, following on from his earlier hits Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn. King uses the inn as a way of exploring the nefarious figures which make up the jianghu (‘martial world’), and as a way of distilling hierarchy in Chinese society. Compared to his previous films, this includes quite a bit more kung fu action, provided by Sammo Hung, but its storytelling and mise en scène makes it feel distinctly separate from the type of head-kickers Golden Harvest were churning out in the early 1970s. For starters, Hu sets his single-set premise during the final days of the Yuan Dynasty, just before the start of the Ming Dynasty (most kung fu films take place during the Ching Dynasty some 300 years later), which gives the film its own unique look. We’re welcomed into the claustrophobic confines of the “Welcoming Spring Inn”, where a pocket of Han Chinese plot their resistance to the invading Mogol powers, personified by the marauding, malicious authority of Yuan army leader and chief legislator, Lee Khan (Tien Feng), and his cold blooded sister (Hsu Feng). With the power couple scheduled to stop at the inn, an ambush is set by its keeper, Wan (Li Li-hua), a scholar (Pai Ying), and a musician (Han Ying-chieh), with back-up provided by the waitering staff, all made up of supreme fighting women with shady backgrounds played by Polly Shang, Angela Mao Ying, Helen Ma and Hu Chin. The women are quick to thwart the lecherous advances of the male clientele as well as quickly dispatch a number of failed attempts to rob the place. After quite a knockabout first half – complete with comedy, chaos, and an influx of characters – it’s only when Lee Khan arrives with his officials that battle lines are more clearly defined and the film settles into a more suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller. It eventually breaks free from its confines and concludes with a big punch-up in the open air. This was the first film of a two-picture deal between King Hu and Golden Harvest, made under his own sister company, King Hu Film Productions (the second film was The Valiant Ones). It heralded the return of Hong Kong’s favourite auteur and, although not as revolutionary as his genre-defining work in Taiwan, it is still an excellent representation of his talents.

The Fate of Lee Khan is available on Blu-ray by Film Movement in North America and Eureka Entertainment in the UK.

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