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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.
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Tsui Hark (director) / Tsui Hark (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li … Zhou Huai’an
Zhou Xun … Ling Yanqiu
Chen Kun … Yu Huatian
Gwei Lun-mei … Buludu
Li Yuchun … Gu Shaotang
Mavis Fan … Su Huirong