Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Jet Li, Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Mavis Fan, Louis Fan Siu Wong, Kwai Lun Mei, Li Yu Chun, Gordon Liu
RunTime: 2 hrs
Released By: Golden Village
Opening Day: 29 December 2011
Synopsis: "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” picks up three years after the infamous Dragon Inn was burnt down in the desert when its innkeeper JADE vanished. A new gang of marauders had taken over: innkeepers by day, and treasure hunters by night. The inn is the rumored location of a lost city buried under the desert, and its hidden treasure would only be revealed by a gigantic storm every sixty years. The gang used the inn as a front to locate the lost treasure. The storm is arriving. But the situation becomes more complicated when a pregnant concubine who escaped from the palace came to the inn. The concubine was saved by a mysterious woman WEN, and the two fled to the Dragon Inn in hiding. Hot on their trail were the Imperial Assassins led by the powerful eunuch YU, followed by the righteous general ZHAO who was determined to take down Yu to restore order in the palace. As the gigantic storm loomed in the horizon, ready to wipe out everything in sight, the cat-and-mouse game inside Dragon Inn grew fiercer. Everyone was trapped, and there’s nowhere to go. Fortune, love and vengeance, could very well be gone with the wind…
Who better to attempt the world’s first 3D ‘wuxia’ movie than Tsui Hark- after all, the man is behind some of the genre’s most iconic representations like ‘The Swordsman’, ‘Green Snake’ and ‘Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain’, and with the latter also a pioneer for introducing Hollywood-style special effects to Chinese cinema. It seems befitting therefore that almost thirty years later, Tsui Hark should be the one to import the latest Hollywood fad for the same genre- and true enough, the veteran director’s maiden effort at the third dimension is nothing less than impressive.
Like James Cameron, Tsui brings his considerable experience as a director to bear on the use of 3D to immerse his viewer into his cinematic vision. Gimmicks aside (yes, you’ll still find all kinds of flying objects- wooden beams, arrows, knives and swords- coming straight at you), Tsui crafts each shot meticulously to create depth in every one of them. Static shots make use of background props like slanting ladders, flapping banners and angled flagpoles, while action shots exploit all manner of moving objects like unfurling chains and spinning ropes to provide raison d’etre for the use of 3D. Tsui has of course had some generous help from Hollywood expert Chuck Comisky (who oversaw the visual effects for ‘Avatar’), and the result is a milestone for the ‘wuxia’ genre as well as for Chinese cinema.
Alas for all its technical achievements, this loose remake of his classic ‘New Dragon Gate Inn’ unfortunately is let down by more conventional elements like plot and character. As with his earlier movie, the setup here is also the gathering of three disparate groups of individuals at a trading post in the middle of the desert. On one hand, there is the vigilante Zhao Huai’an (Jet Li), Zhao’s female equivalent Ling Lanqiu (Zhou Xun), as well as a runaway palace maid Su (Mavis Fan) impregnated by the Emperor and therefore an assassination target by the Empress to preserve the lineage. On the other, there are the formidable Western Bureau troops, led by their fearsome commander Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), who have been sent by the Empress to kill Su and eliminate those opposed to the reigning monarchy.
The pursuit of the latter for the former leads their paths to cross with a ragtag group of bandits in search of ancient treasure buried under the sand near the inn. The advent of a once-in-60-years major sandstorm is supposed to unearth the treasure, and among those waiting to get a share of the riches are Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), Yu Huatian’s doppelganger White Blade (also Chen Kun) as well as an intimidating Tartar warrior princess Buludu (Gwai Lun Mei) and her band of loutish tribesmen. Setting up such a sheer number of characters takes time, and a good half-hour is spent on exposition detailing these individuals and their relationships with each other. The effect of this after an exciting first half-hour watching Zhao assassinate the leader of the Eastern Front (Gordon Liu) and then finding himself outmatched by Yu is like adding a lead weight to the proceedings, so much so that what momentum the film had going for it is almost completely lost.
Perhaps even more significant is that Jet Li is practically absent during this half-hour, and by the time he does reappear to join in the action-packed finale, it’s too late for any significant characterisation to allow his crusading warrior Zhao Huai’an to rise above the fray. There is a past romance hinted at with Zhou Xun’s Ling, but Tsui (who also wrote the screenplay) provides too little elaboration on it- and if Jet Li’s Zhao is thinly drawn, you can pretty much guess that the rest of the characters also suffer the same fate. The simplicity of course allows the viewer the convenience of casting characters as either good guys or bad guys, but one wishes that Tsui had invested in more depth for at least to some of the main ones to allow his audience to have an emotional connection with them.
Not only does this first reunion of Tsui Hark and Jet Li outside the ‘Once Upon A Time in China’ series fail to create a cinematic icon like Wong Fei-Hung, it also gives Jet Li surprisingly little to do in the action department. As if hemmed in by the movie’s title, Jet Li is almost always duelling only with his swords while performing some gravity-defying flight through the air, with ultimately too little of the lightning-quick hand-to-hand combat we’ve come to love about the action star. Not to say that Yuen Bun’s action choreography doesn’t thrill (it does, especially with Tsui’s ability to direct elaborate action sequences), but one hopes that Yuen (who was also behind Tsui’s ‘New Dragon Gate Inn’ back in 1992)- and his co-choreographers Lan Ha Han and Sun Jiankui- had exploited Jet Li’s martial arts prowess for more.
While it fails to capitalise on its key asset (i.e. Jet Li), the film does deliver some thrilling action sequences that blend old-school choreography with modern-day CG wizardry- the showdown between Zhao and Yu right in the middle of a raging sandstorm is an excellent example of this combination. Amid the wire-ful stunts, the excellently staged swordplay stands out- and it is Zhou Xun, rather than Jet Li, who impresses with her elegant moves. Kudos too to Yee Chung-man's rich production design, Choi Sung-fai’s fluid cinematography and Yau Chi-wan’s deft editing in all the elaborately staged action sequences- especially one which seamlessly intercuts between the action inside the inn and below the inn when the triumvirate first converge.
In terms of visual spectacle, Tsui Hark is definitely at the top of his game, both the action choreography and the initiation of 3D into the ‘wuxia’ genre easily establishing itself as one of the must-see classics. Nonetheless, for all its technical achievements, this latest reworking of the ‘Dragon Inn’ mythology is let down by its poorly drawn characters and at times its frenetic over-plotting of deceptions and double-crosses. And even as Tsui has more than proven his prowess with new-fangled Hollywood magic, one wishes that he had also not forgotten his faculty for old-school elements like plot and character- after all, it was these that made his 1992 ‘New Dragon Gate Inn’ such an enduring masterpiece.
(Thrilling action and the best use of 3D since ‘Avatar’- pity the frenetic overplotting, the underwritten characters and most of all, an underused Jet Li)