Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D: Film Review

Jet Li Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Poster - P 2011
Distribution Workshop

Jet Li Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Poster - P 2011

An effects-infatuated swordplay extravaganza with no down time.

Jet Li leads the cast in director-screenwriter Tsui Hark's extravagant and action-packed ride.

MACAU -- Props, instead of top-liner Jet Li, do most of the stunts in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's extravagant and berserk 3D swordplay blockbuster which squeezes court intrigue, star-crossed love and a treasure hunt into one over-booked desert inn. Employing Avatar's Chuck Comisky to supervise the 3D technology, the film is single-minded in its wham bam delivery of stereoscopic stimulation. By contrast, Tsui, who is also writer and producer, appears absent-minded when trying to fit a ragtag bunch of characters into a distended plot teeming with more cross-dressing and mistaken identities than Twelfth Night.

Premiering to compete head-to-head with Zhang Yimou's historic-epic The Flowers of War, Flying has come up second after Flowers in the box office, passing the $50 million mark in less than 2 weeks. Made as pure mass entertainment with an A-list cast for the China market, Tsui's target audience won't feel short-changed. Business should take off in overseas genre-specialist markets.

Flying is supposed to be a sequel to Raymond Lee's New Dragon Gate (1992), which Tsui wrote and produced. The latter is in turn a remake of King Hu's classic Dragon Inn (1967). Just as The Legend of Zu, Tsui's 2011 remake of his own 1983 Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain bears little resemblance to the original, the plot development of Flying barely picks up from where it left off. With enviable resources at his disposal, Tsui behaves like a kid in a candy store, bingeing on effect for effect's sake. No sword strikes without splitting into darting daggers, no human or object moves without levitating or smashing into smithereens. It's dazzling and more accessible than his last blockbuster, the politically nuanced Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Only, it lacks a human touch.

The setting is Ming Dynasty during the reign of Chenghua (1465-1487). The court is controlled by imperial eunuchs who consolidate their power by joining either the East or West Bureaus, organs of oppression and espionage whose in-fighting resembles that of the SA and SS in Nazi Germany. Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu), an enforcer of the East Bureau, is dispatched to execute Can Qianzhi, Minister of Five Armies. His plan is thwarted by Zhao Huai'an (Li), former protege of a noble courtier who fell foul of the East Bureau. Zhao now leads a band of maverick swordsmen in such guerrilla rescue missions. Wan's humiliating defeat gives Yu Huatian (Aloys Chen), Chief of the West Bureau, an opportunity to flex his muscles. When Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), a palace handmaid escapes after her pregnancy is discovered, the jealous imperial consort Wan Zheng'er orders Yu to kill her. Yu assembles a squad of assassins to round up Zhao's gang under the pretext of hunting down Su.

While assaulted by Yu's henchmen, Su is rescued by Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), who for reasons disclosed later, has been cross-dressing to pose as Zhao. Ling takes Su to Dragon Gate Inn, a lone desert outpost from whence she could escape across the westerly border of Shan Hai Guan. Legend has it that for every cycle of 60 years, a massive sandstorm in the region might uncover the treasure-laden lost capital of the Xixia (Tangut) Empire. Before Zhao and Yu arrive for their showdown, a motley crew has already converged at the inn, including thieving partners Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and Yu's deadringer Pu Cangzhou (also played by Chen), libidinous Tartar bandit queen Bu Ru Du (Kwai Lun-mei), her beefcake entourage and Jade, the inn's mysterious owner who disappeared three years ago.

Flying feels like three short movies spliced into one, each set in an utterly different, but equally sumptuous mise-en-scene showcasing Hong Kong's swordplay genre throughout its milestone eras. The open credits channel a melody and illustrated clouds which were fixtures in 1960s Cantonese wuxia films as a homage to the campily low tech animated rendering of flying swords of that period. The charismatic presence and still fearsome fighting skills of Liu reference 70s Shaolin-themed films of which he is a mainstay. The second act is a throwback to 80s and 90s action farces popularized by Wong Jing, while the climactic scenes reflect the recent vogue of setting Chinese blockbusters in desert locations, such as Daniel Lee's 14 Blades and Kevin Chu's The Treasure Hunter.

The first 20 minutes exhibits Tsui's usual command of grand set pieces. Action director Yuen Bun choreographs an exuberant dance between breakneck, 90s-style high-wire action and weapons (especially flying logs) that strike with a graphic impact never seen in 2D films. The ensuing development should consolidate the physical momentum of the first part by easing off the pace to flesh out main characters and intensify the strategic standoff between Yu's and Zhao's followers. Instead, the narrative focus splinters as new figures keep popping up. Despite every inch of the inn being fully utilized for various action sequences and every character going through a mini-crisis or plot-counterplot reversal, the effect is only one muddled narrative impasse. After the claustrophobic middle act, the final leg feels liberating, with impressive cavalry battles set against the awesome desert location. The showdown in the lost city reflects an attempt to expose human avarice a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but the dramatic treatment is trite and the outcome predictable.

Li and Zhou both look worn out, not least from endlessly dodging things thrown in their way but more from having to run through monotonous roles of upstanding hero and self-sacrificing lover. Chen seems to have the most fun camping up his effeminacy as a eunuch and subverting his Prince Charming image as the wussy Pu. One of the enduring pleasures of watching a Tsui Hark film is the power, intelligence and feistiness he invests in his female protagonists. Though they are drawn with less depth than in Tsui's earlier works, at least they are initiators of action, and express their desires with pride and openness.

Sets and costumes are loudly exotic but on the money. Cinematography is versatile but is given no room or time for more lyrical images. Visual effects sometimes could do with more delicacy and verisimilitude, especially a climactic fight in the eye of a crudely animated tornado.

Opened: Dec. 22 in Hong Kong
Production companies: Bona Entertainment Company Limited presents a Film Workshop production
Sales: Distribution Workshop
Cast: Jet Li, Zhou Xun, Aloys Chen, Kwai Lun-Mei, Mavis Fan, Li Yuchun, Louis Fan Siu Wong, Gordon Liu
Director-screenwriter-producer-original story by: Tsui Hark
Producers: Jeffrey Chan, Nansun Shi
Executive producer: Yu Dong
Director of photography: Choi Sung Fai
Production designer: Yee Chun Man
Costume designer: Lai Hsuan-wu
Music: Wu Wai Lap
Editor: Yau Chi Wai
No rating, 122 minutes