I can’t describe how long I have waited to see this one. A DVD Screener appeared online a while back, but the image was severely cropped, and the English subtitles were unintelligible. Fans have done their best, and finally something that made the film watchable has worked its way online. The end result, well certainly pleasing, and makes me desperate for a DVD release, and also maybe a time machine so I could jump back and somehow catch it in 3D in Asia. It is a sort of sequel/re-imagining to the Tsui Hark produced “New Dragon Gate Inn” (which in itself was a rework of a previous classic), but that is not that important in the big scheme of things. This is something entirely new, whilst retaining the joy of the old.
“The Flying Swords of Dragons Gate” tells the story of Ming Dynasty ancient China, where a corrupt Government is kept in power by two groups of powerful Eunuchs, notably Yu Huatian (Kun Chen). The rebellion is led by inspirational figure Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li), who in the opening sequence takes out the leader of one of the factions. But there is another Zhao Huai'an (Zhou Xun) out there, who turns out to be the female ex-innkeeper of the notorious Dragon Gate Inn. She rescues a pregnant concubine (Mavis Fan) of the Emperor, and they make their way to the Inn. When they get there, they encounter a number of bandits led by Li Yuchan and Kun Chen (yes, a dual role) and a tribe of tartar warriors led by Kwai Lunmei. They are there to find the treasure left behind from a city currently hidden under the desert, that will be uncovered by a once in a lifetime storm that is dues any day now. Yu Huatian is on the way though, and these two storylines are going to collide!
I am not sure I have done the plot justice really. There is a lot going on, and a large amount of characters to keep straight. And this is both the strength and the weakness of this film. It really is a film that is playing homage to those crazy 1990’s wuxia films that director Hark made his reputation with. So the plot is fast paced, occasionally overly complex and hard to follow. In fact, if you think about it too much, a lot of the early sequences don’t make a whole lot of geographic sense, but boy are they fun. Once we get everyone to the Inn, then things slow down a little, with allegiances being made and broken. And then onwards to the storm based finale!
The crazy fast paced plotting is just something you get into, anyone who has watched a few of these films will find great comfort in the nostalgic nature of the film. However, with such a large cast of characters, far too many of them are rather underwritten, and aspects of the story which in the past have been Hark’s strength (such as the romantic subplot between Jet Li and Zhou Xun) are just not given enough time to generate any real resonance. In addition, a late betrayal, although suitably unexpected, actually does not really make an awful lot of sense (to be fair, it does when you think of the beginning of this sub-plot, but less so when you consider the journey to the conclusion).
It may feel like a film from 20 years ago, but the polish is very much 21st century. I saw it in 2D, but this has been most definitely put together with the 3D audience in mind. Now I am no fan of 3D at all, but it seems as though the film makers have REALLY done their homework. Not only do things fly out of the screen to great, but there is a depth to some shots, that make use of the way three dimensions should be used properly. This does mean that some of the effects look a little strange when shown in 2D, and moreover a lot of what is shown is quite obviously CGI rather than the expertise of the actors (or wire-fu). Sometimes it works brilliantly, as shown in the opening scene, a little diversion on a boat and in the final underground sequence. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work at all, such as in the final sandstorm battle.
Plenty of standout performances too. Kun Chun is usually a man who can make the most interesting stories utterly boring, and when I saw he had a dual role, my heart sunk. But his superhuman Yu Huatian is a fantastic villain, full of arrogance and cunning. Kwai Lunmei is a huge amount of fun as the barbarian Princess, and I was very impressed with Zhou Xun as the cross-dressing swordsman. Again, my only real disappointment is that I wish there was a bit more screen time for them. On the other hand, Jet Li is surprisingly underused, kept to a handful of scenes.
It is at the end of the day, a big fun, nostalgic romp, that is utterly unapologetic about its influences. Is it up there with the Director’s best work? No, not at all, it is a little too busy, and whilst the 3D is done very well, it has limited in what he can do in terms of moving the camera and using his trademark crazy angles. But if the man himself cannot have fun in this genre, then we would be a hard audience to please. I thought it was brilliant, despite the flaws, and it comes Highly Recommended.