Classic Film Review: Let’s forget “The Fate of Lee Khan”

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How much time do we allow for a vintage “wuxia” picture for “the good stuff” to begin?

Asking for a friend.

Sure, you cut some slack for the early films in the genre of martial arts period pieces that reached their pinnacle with “Crouching Tiger,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero.” But “Dragon Inn” and “Come Drink With Me” set the stage for the flying, fist-flinging, sword-slinging epics to follow, and inspired them by being fun and furious.

“The Fate of Lee Khan” (1973) was a late arrival of those early years. And there are perfectly obvious reasons its not listed among the greats, the early greats of this literary-turned-film phenomenon.

It’s stagey, set on basically one set, with a few exteriors at the beginning and for the Big Brawl at the End.

It’s talky, and the banter isn’t particularly witty — heavy on exposition. It’s about a 13th century conflict, a tyrannical leader — Lee Khan (Feng Tien) — his visit to the remote Spring Inn (because “Dragon Inn” was taken) and efforts to steal a map of war plans.

The little bursts of action generally spin around the owner, Wan Jen-mi (Li Hua Li) and her beautiful, martial arts-and-pickpocketing skilled and somewhat short-tempered wait staff.

And that’s just not enough to put this over.

I’m not that familiar with the films of King Hu, but a quick Google reveals he was never known for fight choreography. Fine. But if the story, the performances, the gags and the righteous beat-downs are supposed to sell this, they don’t.

The trash talk and threats are of the “You must be tired of living!” (subtitles) variety.

The only laughs come from the singing, rhyming jester (Ying-Chieh Han) who works the room for tips, gets on most people’s nerves, and then gets himself involved in the plot that involves Wan Jen mi and the mysterious Wang Cheng (Ying Bai).

It’s pretty enough to look at, in a sort of colorfully-underlit way. The fights better staged than photographed and edited. And the tedium overwhelms whatever excitement we might have hoped for, considering the genre, the title and the fact that somebody (Film Movement) thought this was a “forgotten gem” that deserved reconsideration.

Not really. Judging from this, “The Fate of Lee Khan” was to die of boredom waiting for the “fun parts” to begin.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, some bloody violence

Cast: Li Hua Li, Feng Tien, Ying Bai, Angela Mao, Chin Hu, Feng Hsu and Ying-Chieh Han

Credits: Directed by King Hu, script by King Hu and Chung Wang.  A Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 1:45

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