(As the film begins a limited engagement in IMAX in selected cities in the U.S., we revisit our review from its theatrical release in Hong Kong in December 2011.)
Director Tsui Hark is back in a big way after the excellent Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which snagged him the Best Director prize at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards and now his epic reimagining of Dragon Gate Inn, which he filmed in 3D and will be screened - in China at least - in IMAX.
One thing is abundantly clear within moments of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate starting and that's that Tsui Hark clearly understands how to employ this added third dimension to invigorate action sequences and bring depth to his imagery. Throughout the film, Hark makes wonderful use of the depth of field afforded to him by 3D and for perhaps the first time since this latest wave of interest in the technology, it genuinely adds to the viewing experience.
As one might imagine there are frequent incidents when blades, arrows, knives and swords protrude violently out of the screen, as well as everything from giant logs to ribbons and even, in one instance, Gwai Lun Mei's spit. But these kinds of cheap parlour tricks can be witnessed in any American horror sequel these days. What Tsui gives us are sword fights from the background right into the foreground of the frame. We are treated to skirmishes between finely skilled martial artists as they duck between elaborate networks of beams and pillars, or we plummet deep into mountain valleys on the tail feathers of a predatory eagle. Suffice to say, 3D has almost never convinced me as a legitimate addition to the cinematic paint box, but Tsui Hark may well have provided the best arguement yet for its existence.
While the film may succeed in at least this element of its technical construction, how does it fare as a piece of drama? Or less demandingly, as a martial arts spectacular? The film opens strongly, with Jet Li's Zhao Huai'an introduced as a crusading warrior, fighting for justice against the corrupt eunuchs who terrorise the country without adequate governance during the Ming Dynasty. The fearful Western Bureau, led by Commander Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), is tearing the land apart in search of Su (Mavis Fan), a palace maid whom the Emperor has impregnated and must now be executed to preserve the bloodline.
Su is discovered, but before she can be executed, is rescued by a mysterious warrior claiming to be Zhao Huai'an. After their escape, Su's saviour reveals herself to be Ling Lanqiu (Zhou Xun), though she keeps any further information to herself. In order to leave the region, the women must pass through the remote desert and rest at Dragon Gate Inn. Commander Yu knows this too and sends his best men to cut them off. On arrival at the inn, however, they must batten down the hatches and sit out an approaching storm, along with a gang of dangerous and hostile tribesmen, under the command of their princess (a stunning Gwai Lun Mei). While Ling and Su lurk in the caves under the inn, two travelling warriors arrive, Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and White Blade - who bears an uncanny resemblance to Commander Yu (and is also played by Chen Kun).
While this might seem like an impossibly complex network of characters and an overly elaborate set-up, everything falls into place with remarkable ease and clarity. There are heroes and villains, mysterious wild cards and right smack in the middle is a mongol horde of half-drunk barbarians determined to get mixed up in everyone else's business. Of course, no one turns out to be who they claim to be and the second half of the film is as much a series of reveals, explanations and doublecrosses as it is an escalating series of duels and skirmishes, amidst an oppressive, computer-generated sandstorm, which is as integral to the plot as it is rote and cliched.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is not a remake of either King Hu's 1966 film or the Tsui Hark produced New Dragon Gate Inn from 1992, but rather a reworking of some prominent story threads in a timeline that clearly defines it as a sequel. Zhou Xun's Ling, in particular, carries emotional baggage with her throughout the film that goes largely unexplained, although those familiar with the more recent of the two previous films will have a better idea of where her character is coming from, and in many ways she is the focal point of the film's dramatic momentum. There is a large section in the middle of the film in which Jet Li's character is absent, and although he does reestablish himself in the third act, it seems more so that Commander Yu's final showdown is with another man, rather than the character necessarily earning it.
It should be noted that for a film that is in fact applaudably strong in almost all aspects for a good hour of its running time, the final half hour becomes frustratingly slapdash and nonsensical. While the film does display an overreliance on CGI throughout, it is during the climactic sandstorm where the film begins to lose its aesthetic foothold. This is then succeeded by a rather baffling volte face from one of the major characters for apparently no reason at all, which leaves the audience feeling a little cheated at the end. However, this does not sour the experience entirely, far from it. Flying Swords has lots working in its favour, from the dynamic and energetic swordplay, to Commander Yu's inexplicable yet dazzling powers of magic and telekinesis, to some strong characterisation from a fairly large ensemble cast.
As previously mentioned, Gwai Lun Mei's tribal princess is likely to have a lasting impact on audiences, despite the fact that she doesn't play a particularly influential role. Her facial tattoos, braided hair and overall feral behaviour are strangely bewitching. Tsui Hark has always specialised in strong female characters and Zhou Xun shows another side to her increasingly eclectic range as the wounded warrior, Ling. Jet Li's noble hero is a little lacking in emotional depth or much of a story arc, but he acquits himself admirably to a number of wire-fu battles and while his agility may not be what it once was, his swordplay is still extremely impressive.
Speaking of impressive fighters, Fan Siu Wong also crops up in the film as a Western Bureau commander with a delightfully grotesque appearance. His scarred face is covered by a custom-made grill, which coupled with a milky left eye gives him an excellent villainous look. Although he does get a couple of good fight sequences in, there could have been so much more, but the cast is arguably overstuffed already. That said, there is still space for Chen Kun to play two characters, and he is clearly having a blast both as Yu, the embodiment of pure evil, and White Blade - a former contemporary of Zhao's who attempts to impersonate the Commander, who in turn wants to capture him to use as a decoy.
To sum all this up, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a film with plenty going on, and thankfully it manages to pull off the vast majority of it in fine style. It has been great seeing Tsui Hark recapture his mojo and take Hong Kong Cinema back to a classic era, and inject it with such fun and vitality. He has brilliantly mastered the 3D technology and it would be no surprise to see him continue to experiment with it in the future. Flying Swords is not a perfect film, but it attacks its subject matter with confidence and energy, and remembers first and foremost to be entertaining - which it most certainly accomplishes, in all three dimensions.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate begins a limited engagement today in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC. Check the official site for theater locations.