DVD Talk Hero
Join Date: May 2001
Re: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (D: Tsui Hark, S: Jet Li)
Here are some reviews for those of you still on the fence.
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 fair 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 bares 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.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good old-fashioned Chinese martial arts movie, and I guess it’s appropriate Tsui Hark’s “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” would be the movie to welcome me back into the fold. It’s every bit the type of throwback flick that Hark is known for, with its complicated narrative (mind you, I’m not saying the film is especially difficult to understand, it’s just unnecessarily jumbled) and old school martial arts. Once upon a time everything in “Dragon Gate” would be done with wires, but in this day and age of computers, the film’s high-flying stunts are achieved with CGI, or a combination of CGI and wires. An improvement? Not really. In fact, it looks overly fake, but it’s the new reality, so mind as well get used to it.
This is officially the third go-round at the titular Dragon Gate Inn, starting with King Hu’s 1967 “Dragon Inn”, which was remade by Hark and company in 1992. The remake featured an all-star cast of Donnie Yen as the villain, along with Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, and Brigitte Lin. The 2011 version is headlined by Jet Li, here playing a vigilante name Zhou Huai’an who, in Ming Dynasty-era China, goes around the countryside dispatching corrupt officials. (I guess that’s one way to kick the bums out of office.) In the film’s opening sequence, Zhou tangles with a cameo’ing Gordon Liu, who has seen way better days. Once that’s done, we move on to the film proper, which finds Zhou and an assortment of colorful characters converging on the Dragon Inn, a not-all-that-hospital dump in the middle of the desert, where an impending sandstorm threatens to wipe it and everything else off the face of the Earth.
Among the Inn’s rowdy occupants is the mysterious swordswoman Ling Yanquiu (Zhou Xun), who brings along fugitive maiden Su Huirong (Mavis Fan, the film’s token damsel in distress). There’s also Buludu (Gwei Lun-mei), the tawdry leader of a group of heavily tattooed misfits; and Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), who later arrives with her friend Wind Blade (Chen Kun). And oh, Wind Blade also happens to be a dead ringer for Yu Huatian, one of two Eunuch officials on Zhou’s kill list. Yu himself, meanwhile, is on his way to the Dragon Gate Inn to finish off a certain fugitive maiden and end Zhou’s reign of terror. And just in case those weren’t enough subplots for ya, writer/director Tsui Hark also throws in a mythical palace filled with gold.
If it sounds like “Dragon Gate” is all over the place, well, it is. Everything does eventually come to a logical head, with secret alliances and motivations revealed by the halfway point, thus setting the stage for a major showdown between Yu and his forward soldiers at the Inn versus Zhou and a loose-knit group of fortune hunters. This is definitely old-school filmmaking, and those who have missed the seemingly made-up-on-the-spot nonsensical plotting of ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong cinema will get a real kick out of Hark reliving those glory days. Likewise, the action is all kinds of crazy, with flying brawlers, impossible sword fights, and guys (and gals) throwing down like the sometimes-CGI creations they (sometimes) are. No doubt about it, Tsui Hark is definitely embracing the new technology … perhaps a tad too much. Of course, this is me going out on a limb when I say Jet Li isn’t really fighting that guy in the vortex of a raging sand tornado. But hey, I could be wrong.
Even though Jet Li gets top billing, there’s enough major roles in the film to call this an ensemble piece. Everyone gets plenty of screentime to do their thing, even if you won’t particularly care about all of their fates. Honestly, there are just way too many characters here. Li opens the film, but disappears for a big chunk in the middle, leaving Zhou Xun and company to pick up the slack. Li does eventually end back up on the scene around the hour mark, just in time to take on the extremely lethal (and at times, ridiculously overpowered) Yu. Chen Kun is fantastic in double duty work, and the ladies of “Dragon Gate” definitely shine. I haven’t seen this many gathering of kickass female warriors in a long while, with Zhou Xun’s lovelorn character particularly memorable.
A lot of money went into making “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”, and it shows up onscreen. Hark goes all out with the visuals, including a monstrous sandstorm that wipes out everything in its path. There is even an epic tracking shot to open the film that employs a ton of CG, and I can only imagine that the 3D is worth paying extra for. Those arrows and throwing daggers that are supposed to be flying right at me just doesn’t quite work at home, though, but I can see how they would look pretty cool in 3D. If you’ve been hankering for some old school martial arts and the recent slate of epics aren’t doing it for you, then give “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” a whirl. You’ll get your money’s worth and then some.
So there's simultaneously a super secret team of giant robots and a super secret team of technologically enhanced super soldiers, and neither team knows about the other? The governments in these movies must be far more effective than our actual government. Well, damn it, I want some realism and mature adult themes in my giant robot and super soldier movies! - Suprmallet