Six years after directing SEVEN SWORDS, Tsui Hark returns to the wuxia genre in a big way with this epic reimagining of his own 1992 classic DRAGON INN, itself a remake of King Hu’s 1967 masterpiece. It’s a visually lush and action-packed production that will go down in history as China’s first movie to be released in the 3D Imax format.
In his first collaboration with Tsui since 1993, Jet Li stars in a role originally intended for Donnie Yen, who having previously starred in Tsui’s DRAGON INN chose not to revisit old territory. Swordsman Zhao Huai’an (Li) and two associates are all that remains of a band of martial heroes resisting the tyranny of Ming Dynasty eunuchs. The most powerful of these castrated overlords is Yu Hua-tian (Chen Kun) who is ordered to track down and kill a pregnant consort to the Emperor named Su Hui-rong (Mavis Fan). While Zhao attempts to stop the eunuch and his minions, Su comes under the protection of Zhao’s old acquaintance, swordswoman Lung Yan-qiu (Zhou Xun). Together they flee into the Western desert where the two women seek shelter at the remote Dragon Inn, a haven for violent warriors and cannibals. As the women hide in tunnels below, the inn becomes a nexus of brewing conflict between a gang of Tartar thieves, led by a lusty tribal lass (Kwai Lun-mei), and the eunuch’s advance scouting party. Complicating the situation is the arrival of two mystery travelers, one of whom bares a striking resemblance to the eunuch. A game of intrigue begins involving posturing, bluffs and assassination attempts. With the arrival of Zhao, and subsequently the eunuch and his main fighting force, all hell breaks loose as an unlikely alliance is struck and allies are turned against each other while the mother of all sandstorms closes in. As Zhao and his allies battle Yu and his men, at stake is the fate of all and access to a vast treasure of a lost empire uncovered by the passing storm.
Tsui Hark has outdone himself. The filmmaker has always had a knack for producing vivid action films but FLYING SWORDS looks mouthwateringly gorgeous throughout. From sweeping aerial shots of detailed period shipyards bustling with ship builders and ancient, crumbling ruins hidden amid vast, sandy wastes to the picture-perfect staging of exotically adorned, distinctive-looking characters and the framing of highly dynamic, superheroic martial arts action to rival the best of Hollywood’s comic book fare, every frame of this movie begs to be gawked at repeatedly. The exceptions are occasional diversions into excessive CGI-enhanced action such as Li’s ridiculous aerial duel with Chen Kun in the sandstorm’s vortex. It’s about as well staged as Patrick Swayze’s goofy tornado riding scene as Pecos Bill in Disney’s kid’s flick TALL TALE (1995).
Fighting action arranged by Hong Kong veteran Yuen Bun is fantastic by wuxia standards, though it tends to excessively favor computerized flying projectiles to provide added eye candy to viewers of the 3D version. The able integration of elaborate CGI with traditional wirework and Hong Kong-style martial arts resembles the action Yuen Woo-ping provided for Stephen Chow in KUNG FU HUSTLE. Although the Chinese broad sword is featured most often, a variety of traditional and inventive weapons are showcased. Most memorable are seemingly infinite iron darts flung by Li Yu-chun and razor-sharp, gold threading ingeniously strung on the fly to slice up unsuspecting pursuers. This nasty weapon plays a critical role in the film’s final fight.
A common complaint of this film is Li’s limited role and showcase of skill. It’s true. He’s not featured as prominently as fans are accustomed to seeing in his other films while his action scenes have him frequently wired up, doubled or replaced entirely by a digital replica. However, his role remains critical to the story and frankly, his action performance is just fine within the context of a film that intentionally favors fantasy over live-action martial arts fighting. The remaining cast does a terrific job of collectively carrying the film. Genre fans should appreciate seeing Gordon Liu fighting Li in a guest role, as well as supporting roles from IP MAN co-star Fan Siu-wong and mainland actor Sun Jian-kui who notably played a white-haired eunuch in Yuen Woo-ping’s TAI-CHI MASTER. Most notable is actress Zhou Xun, last seen by genre fans in Yuen Woo-ping’s TRUE LEGEND, as heroine Lung Yan-qiu who must endure an unrequited love for Li’s character while selflessly aiding the consort. As the villainous lead eunuch, Chen Kun isn’t quite the tangible menace that either the charismatic Bai Ying was in King Hu’s DRAGON INN or the physically skillful Donnie Yen was in Tsui’s first remake but he musters his own air of wickedness to adequately suit the film. Tsui smartly establishes this character’s peerless fighting skill early on with a potent showcase of qi power to rival Darth Vader’s command of the Force. Regardless of the version in question, this character is easily one of martial arts cinema’s most intriguing and deadly villains on par with the white-browed traitor of Shaolin, Bak Mei (EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN) and the transgendered Dongfang Bubai (THE EAST IS RED).
For the most part, this is a really enjoyable film that sees Tsui Hark finally return to form after too many years of struggling to rekindle the magic of his initial heyday in the 1980s and early ’90s. FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE delivers what the underdeveloped, somewhat uncompelling SEVEN SWORDS failed to and returns the genre to its adventurous, action-oriented roots in the wake of so many stuffy, costume drama/wuxia hybrids that have been churned out of China in the past decade. It required that Tsui return to a well-worn story, although certainly with greater success than with his fantasy redo THE LEGEND OF ZU. Viewers familiar with the two previous DRAGON INN films will doubtless have an easier time figuring out the film’s complex story. In purposely changing the plot to distance the film from its progenitors Tsui tosses in a few interesting diversions and surprises that, coupled with some of the best imagery seen in martial cinema in years, makes this a worthy update to the swordplay genre.
Fan Siu-wong • Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) • Genre: Wuxia • Gordon Liu • Jet Li • Sun Jian-kui • Tsui Hark • Yuen Bun