Films like The Hateful Eight and Kill Bill wouldn’t exist without its predecessors to serve as inspiration, and director Quentin Tarantino has been very clear about the inspiration he’s drawn from classic martial arts movies. There’s a certain style to thesee “kung fu” films, basic morality plays interwoven with Chinese mythology, intimate set pieces that could be on a performing arts stage and, of course, those fantastic fight scenes. The industry has a name for these films too – Wuxia – and there’s no better example than the classic, much lauded The Fate of Lee Khan.
Just as watching Casablanca can seem a bit trite and cliché if you forget that those cliches were created by the film’s success, so it is with The Fate of Lee Khan too: a lot of what have become tropes of Kung Fu movies come to us from this film. It’s also groundbreaking for its gender equality storyline – the primary martial artists are all female, including Li Li-Hua and Angela Mao – and classic rebels-fighting-the-evil-governer storyline.
It’s 1366 and General Lee Khan (Feng Tien) is an official working for the Mongolian Emperor Yuan who has managed to procure the battle map of the Chinese rebel army. Fortunately the resistance fighters realize he’s stolen it and they corner him at a local Inn where all the main action occurs. The Spring Inn is operated by a group of women (Li Li-Hua, Angela Mao, Hu Chin, Helen Ma) who are all secretly part of the Chinese rebellion and formidable fighters in their own right. Can they help the resistance fighters trick Khan, avoid his crazy/dangerous sister (Feng Hsu), and steal back the map before the rebels are crushed by Emperor Yuan?
If you’re used to martial arts movies that are all action and fighting with barely any storyline, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by The Fate of Lee Khan: it’s very well assembled and the motley cast of characters that travel through the Inn are entertaining and engaging. Director King Hu and fight choreographer Sammo Hung have created a morality tale suitable for a stage production, except for all the wonderful fight sequences. Characters leap soundlessly from balconies and flip over tables to confront troublesome clientele, often with something as innocuous as chopsticks or a bowl of rice.
It’s good fun and well worth trying to dig up. Fortunately, Film Movement Classics just released a 2K digital remaster of The Fate of Lee Khan and it looks and sounds fantastic. The extras are fun and educational too, notably a discussion about the film from the New York Asian Film Festival. Definitely recommended!
Dad at the Movies note: This is entirely suitable for younger viewers, though pre-tween might be upset by the fighting. Still, compared to even a modern TV show, it’s all very benign and stylized. It is, of course, subtitled, however, which might affect a younger viewer’s enjoyment.