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I properly fanboyed out last year when I reviewed Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee. It was the ideal comeback for a unique filmmaker that had lost his way for almost two decades of mediocre-to-bad movies – an uncommon blend of outrageous action and quirky, supernaturally-laced comedy. For his umpteenth comeback follow-up Tsui took on the ambitious role of writing, directing, and producing China’s first 3D-shot wuxia flick – The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The results are less than encouraging, ranging somewhere between vaguely satisfying and crushingly disappointing.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The
The bad news starts as I try to find a way to sum up the plot for this review. The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a pseudo-remake/sequel or ‘re-imagining’ of New Dragon Gate Inn, which was produced by Hark and directed by Raymond Lee in 1992. The last time Hark re-imagined one of his past successes with a massive budget and state of the art digital effects he made The Legend of Zu, an utterly vapid replay of his seminal picture – Zu Warriors. To make matters more confusing, New Dragon Gate Inn was already a remake of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1966). This is the part where I acknowledge that remakes play an important role throughout Chinese cinema, possibly even dwarfing Hollywood’s similar practice. The retelling of ‘true legends’ isn’t the problem – in fact, two of my favourite ‘90s era wuxia flicks, Iron Monkey (also produced by Tsui) and Fist of Legend, are remakes of 1970s releases. The problem is that Tsui treats The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate largely the same way he treated The Legend of Zu. He seems to assume his audience is already familiar with the convoluted story he’s based his film around and focuses almost entirely on playing with new technological toys (the original Zu Warriors is a marvel of nonsense that makes sense because of the effort put into storytelling). Matters are then even further confused when I read the official Flying Swords of Dragon Gate synopsis and learn that it technically takes place three years after the events of Dragon Gate Inn. I have not seen either Dragon Gate Inn or New Dragon Gate Inn and don’t feel like I’m exactly welcome on this narrative journey.

Even if I was aware of the two films that precede this one I’d likely feel isolated by the excessive number of characters and extremely political plot. Every new character grouping represents not only another group of people to keep track of, but another story vignette to lose among the others. I was able to recognize character archetypes as a fan of Hong Kong action films, but rarely understood exactly why anything was happening outside the broadest plot points. And every time I thought I was finally catching up Tsui unleashes something new that totally changes the momentum of the story, like the bit where he introduces his MacGuffin a solid hour into the film. So much is meant to be taken for granted by a knowing audience that I can’t imagine anyone unfamiliar with the genre following the story with any more success than myself. Perhaps if this wasn’t a nearly Altman-level ensemble piece with a solid lead character the complexity and speed of the plotting wouldn’t be so much of an issue. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a single good Tsui Hark production that doesn’t feature a distinct audience surrogate (occasionally two, in the case of Zu Warriors). The obvious choices to fill this void would be either superstar cast member Jet Li, whose combined screen time is something like 15-20 minutes, or, more likely, someone from the troop of young actresses, including Zhou Xun, who was nominated as Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards (China’s Oscars), pop star-turned-actress Chen Kun, and Kwai Lun-mei, all of which are more interesting than any of the film’s male characters.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The
These complaints aside, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate often succeeds because it feels like a vintage, late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Tsui Hark wire-fu movie. The director incorporates recent technical advances into his more traditional filmmaking style. Legend of Zu was made hideous with aggressive Technicolor effects, but here, he uses stylized CG embellishments that mostly match the film’s overall Baroque and grounded look. The outrageous comic book and animation-inspired bits match the similarly goofy practical effects of Zu Warriors and Green Snake. Seven Swords (2005) saw him experimenting with colour and digital grading without any real purpose. Here, the digital photography and vibrant colours tell more of an actual story than the screenplay. On the other hand, the vintage quality of the overall direction sort of makes the film feel dated. Detective Dee tended to feel more like an extension of Tsui’s classic work, rather than a throwback. It also remembered how important humour was to the director’s formula. The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate isn’t without its charm – there’s always a sense of fun behind the complex melodrama and at least half the performances are tongue-in-cheek – but you could probably count the film’s ‘jokes’ on one hand.

The supernatural endowments are handled well and the special effects are solid for a Chinese feature, arguably even better than Detective Dee and John Woo’s Red Cliff (save some really floppy digital doubles and rough rotoscoping). However, the straight hand to hand stuff carries little threat or weight, even when blood is spilled by the gallon. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult to be concerned with the fates of any of the characters. Tsui also has issues with building tension in the lead up to the fight sequences. Most of the battles tend to commence without too much discussion and the film’s breakneck pacing doesn’t pause for many teeth-gnashing introductions or Sergio Leone-style pre-battle pauses. There’s awe-inspiring, beautiful images, but little time to appreciate the dynamics of the action and even less rhythm to keep the combat from blending into one big slur of colour and sound. The action choreography is credited to Lan Hai Han (whose only credit is Jackie Chan’s tepid American co-produced The Medallion) and Bun Yuen (whose credits include New Dragon Gate Inn). Not to downplay either man’s capabilities, but Sammo Hung or Yuen Woo-Ping’s participation is a more exciting prospect for an ‘event’ movie, especially after Hung so successfully took over the fisticuffs on Detective Dee (for which he was flat-out credited as ‘action director,’ rather than ‘choreographer’). Again, the acrobatics and wirework recall Tsui’s best work, but there’s little weight or dynamic range to the choreography and even less of the wit fans expect from vintage Tsui Hark.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The

Video


The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was shot using Red digital HD cameras, the same format Tsui first explored for Detective Dee. As mentioned several times above and in all of the film’s advertising material, the entire film was (reportedly) shot in native 3D and released in the IMAX format. The people at Vivendi were good enough to send me the 3D/2D Blu-ray set, but as per usual, I am only able to cover the 1080p, 2:35:1 2D disc here. This transfer is unsurprisingly sharp and vibrant, featuring oodles of detail and a wide array of colours. Tsui and Cinematographer Sung Fai Choi (who worked as a camera operator on big-budget, American-Chinese co-productions Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Forbidden Kingdom) are clearly cramming stuff in the lens for the sake of a good 3D effect, but even in 2D, the depth of the composition is impressive and mostly clean. With the exception of rare shots that feature bit of edge enhancement or similar sharpening effects, this transfer rivals even the best, big studio output. There’s a nice mix of stylized and natural elements in almost every shot. These don’t only define the look of the film, but they represent this transfer’s greatest mix of strengths. For example, early in the film, there is a scene set against the very real backdrop of a very real river. The skin tones and colourful wardrobe pieces have a glow to them, revealing signs of digital grading while showing off the blending capabilities of the Red format, while the water, cliff face, and fine textures of the boat are all so realistic that you can practically feel them. The colour schemes are consistent based on their location, but change-up with relative regularity. This leads to an eclectic collection of sequences where a different base colour is presented smoothly with crisp black textures and a couple of poppy contrasting hues. A few hues bloom a bit and digital noise levels are occasionally inconsistent from scene to scene, but clarity is relatively constant throughout.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with both an original DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin  track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 English dub. I ignored the English dub. Unfortunately, the Mandarin DTS-HD track is problematic, mostly pertaining to the dialogue above everything else. Almost all of the dialogue is cranked a bit too loud and is almost exclusively, unnaturally centered (the few times dialogue escapes center, it’s just as loud and distracting). Worse for many viewers are pervasive lip-sync issues. I’m almost positive that I’m hearing the actor’s real voices, but the mouth-to-sound ratio is so consistently off and the intonations so odd that it’s as if Tsui shot the film without sound. I watch a lot of dubbed movies, so the uncanny qualities wore off for the most part, but the strange volume levels never subsided. Sound effects are better served here. Not a lot of noise escapes the vacuum created during the aggressively loud dialogue sequences, but natural ambience plays at least a minor role throughout and action scenes are brimming with stereo and surround effects. Directional effect highlights include a crow attack where the birds’ calls and flaps create a massive dynamic range throughout the channels;  a big, supernaturally endowed storm featuring excessively bassy thunder; and any scene where weapons are thrown from off-screen towards center. The score is credited to three composers – Xin Gu, Han Chiang Li, and Wai Lap Wu – and is quite traditional for the most part, to the point that the music sounds kind of tinny. The music has a fair share of stereo elements and even some surround enhancement that helps place some of the instruments somewhere around the middle of the room, but also has a sort of flat, thin quality throughout. It’s also often lacking the expected LFE boost. Mournful flute melodies tend to escape with a generally warm tone. Perhaps the best way of summing up the track’s problems is to point to the obvious divide between dialogue, effects, and music. It isn’t often that these elements are given a shared presence without blending these days, especially not when this much money is onscreen.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The

Extras


The extras begin with Making of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate parts one and two (4:50, 9:10, SD), two brief behind the scenes segments featuring choppy footage from the set and interviews with Tsui, Li, actors Zhou Xun, Li Yuchun, Kwai Lun-mei and Chen Kun, and producer Nansun Shi (I think – no one is named in English). Next up are more interviews with the cast and crew (I hope I have the names right, 20:20, SD), an extensive, but entirely raw and random behind the scenes reel (32:20, SD), a trailer, and trailers for other Vivendi releases.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, The

Overall


Sometimes I am truly saddened by how much I want to like a movie and this is definitely one of those times. My hopes as a lifelong Tsui Hark fan that were stoked with Detective Dee have been unceremoniously dashed here. Perhaps in all its IMAX 3D grandeur The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate transcends its terribly confusing storyline and over-abundance of interchangeable characters, but on a smaller, 2D screen it’s a total mess. In better news, the quality of the 2D 1080p video is top notch, better than expectations set by similar recent releases. Back on the unfortunate side, the DTS-HD MA Mandarin soundtrack features some incredibly awkward dialogue tracks and the extras don’t do a whole lot to fill out the film’s production backstory.

* Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.


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