It has been 14 years since Martial arts superstar Jet Li and Wuxia King Tsui Hark had collaborated in a film (Once Upon a Time in China). The two have been missed by the Wuxia world, and it is refreshing to see them work together once again in 2011‘s “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”. This film is a remake/re-issue of the 1967 classic “Dragon Inn” and 1992’s “New Dragon Inn” that Tsui had produced. Now as a follow up to his widely successful “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, Tsui Hark has returned to bring back Wuxia fans to the fold by sidestepping the serious tone and romantic mood that “CrouchingTiger Hidden Dragon” had established with epic tales of romance and betrayal and the "cutesy", dumbed-down Hong Kong Wuxia films. Hark now brings us back to the years of fun characters, snazzy high flying martial arts action and the energy that made him a household name in Chinese cinema.
The core plot of the film is very similar to the past “Dragon Inn” movies where a fateful encounter occurs in the remote inn. The film begins when Zhao (Jet Li) causes some major issues for the Ming Dynasty by taking out corrupt high authority figures in the East and the West divisions of government that are only answerable to the emperor. Zhao had just taken out the Eastern division’s Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu) that leads to the western division’s Yu Huatian (Aloys Chen) to go hunting for Zhao’s head. Zhao barely avoids capture, but there is another “Zhao” going around; there is an enigmatic masked female (Zhao Xun, Painted Skin) who had also taken his identity and opposes the corrupt divisions.
The female Zhao takes into her confidence a palace maid named Su Hiorong (Mavis Fan) who is also being hunted by Yu for offending the royal concubine. Eluding their pursuers leads the two women into the “Dragon Inn”, and the two women are now in the company of a tattooed “Tartar” woman Buludu (Guey Lin-Mei) and her Mongol warriors when finally, Yu’s men (led by Sheng Chen) arrive in search of the palace maid. Zhao is shadowing Yu nearby, but things are about to get much more complicated when Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and a man called “Wind Blade” (also played by Alloys Chen) who has a striking resemblance for Yu Huatian arrive in the inn….
True, the plot in “Flying Swords” is a lot less ambitious than Hark’s most recent film “Detective Dee” as it takes less risks and feels that it has lesser stakes. It is instead driven by the abundance of its many colorful characters. The story has some effective twists and surprises and I enjoyed the way the story unraveled despite its somewhat simple plot. There is a lot that goes on in the film, and some may find the script a little tough to follow. Hark uses his knack for screwball humor as he uses this to charm his viewers. I have to say that the core plot is pretty standard and the depths of the characters are pretty predictable and yet, they all appear to be so charming that the movie just becomes a lot of fun.
There is a lot of comings and goings especially in the part of Alloys Chen who plays dual roles. Chen does manage to take command, as he portrays Yu with some regal ruthlessness and yet, he is goofy and clever as “Wind Blade’. I do have to admit that I was taken with the role of Guey Lin-Mei who is just so alluring as the tattooed princess. Jet Li is in familiar ground in this film, but he struggles to form a chemistry with Zhao Xun as their supposed “unspoken feelings” for each other felt a little forced.
Action drives the energy and the pace of this film as Hark wields the hand of a Wuxia master as he maneuvers the fight sequences into something that appears more similar to a dance as the shots expressed the fluidity of the moves. Wires and some minor CGI enhancements were used to showcase the martial arts choreography, and this may turn off some viewers. However, Tsui Hark does practice a sense of restraint in the way he uses the wires and CGI to hold on to his signature of high flying action. Instead he uses different styles of fighting and interesting preferences in weaponry. Gu Shaotang is a knife-thrower, while Buludu uses a weapon similar to television’s “Xena”. I was also impressed with the female spy (this is a surprise) who uses razor sharp wires to kill her opponents much like a spider weaves its webs. Weapons were used to express their personalities and as to how they approach a fight. Yu has this amazing sword that looks like it shatters to deliver projectiles, and yet it is all an illusion to mislead his enemies. This is one of the most creative weapons I’ve seen on film and Tsui does a good job with the way he framed the fights.
There is a lot of flying around as with most of Hark’s fantasy movies and this time he indulges with the use of some wild CGI effects as Yu and Zhao fight each in mid air, around the eye of a tornado. Unlike the recent “The Sorcerer and White Snake” movie I reviewed, the effects are smoother and more convincing. They may not be on the level as most of Hollywood’s top CGI creations, but they were very decent. This is a fantasy film and so expect Hark to use a lot of wires as he takes the fighting to different levels in the settings. Set designs were cool, but a little uneven as with the computer effects.
“Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” is not a perfect movie, and I have to advise those who may be interested that this is not a movie to be taken seriously. The plot is so predictable (most remakes are) and the characters while charming offer very little to add dimensions to the film. Still, it is a very fun movie to see and it is just refreshing to see Hark carry on his usual trademark--and this is the strong female characters who are admirable, courageous and outspoken. This is what it is all about as it takes us away from the romantic, moody epics that have diverted Wuxia from its traditional, more straight-forward roots. It is a postmodern film that showcases an update of effects while staying true to older Wuxia sensibilities.
Everyone takes away different things from a movie and in this one, I haven't got a good grip of what to take away with! Having Jet Li as its star actor guarantees me as a viewer though I'm not so sure that could be said for a Tsui Hark production and direction. That's probably why actors are often better paid than directors! This is the 3-D version and it's my first movie of the year. The last one by Jet Li was The Sorcerer and The White Snake … more