« The Bloodthirsty Doll | Main | Bedevilled »

October 02, 2012

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

flying swords of dragon gate 1.jpg

Long men fei jia
Tsui Hark - 2011
Indomina Region 1 DVD

It's appropriate that Flying Swords of Dragon Gate begins with Shang Yi old school fanfare, the kind of music associated with Chinese opera or some of the older martial arts movies from Hong Kong. The supplemental interviews reenforced what I had sensed while watching this film, that it was a continuation of Tsui's Dragon Inn from 1992, as well as that film's inspiration, the original Dragon Inn made by King Hu in 1967. Not that knowing either of these two older films is a requirement to enjoy Tsui's newest work, but it may provide an extra level of enjoyment.

At around the same time that Tsui produced his version of Dragon Inn, he was also in the midst of making his series of Once Upon a Time in China series, the films that helped establish Jet Li as a top martial arts movie star. As such, Flying Swords represents the opportunity to revisit wuxia filmmaking with the kind of budget and means that were unavailable twenty years ago. What hasn't changed for Tsui is his penchant for having women disguised as men, although nothing here rivals the flirting between Maggie Chueng posing as a young man, with Brigitte Lin, in Dragon Inn. Tsui also has a running joke regarding a password, a plot device from Peking Opera Blues. As in many of Tsui's films, it is the women who are the more interesting characters.

flying swords of dragon gate 2.jpg

Without getting too involved here, we have Jet Li, an independent fighter for justice, pursued by an ambitious eunuch's soldiers. The eunuch is also chasing after a pregnant maid to prevent an unwanted heir to the throne. The "knight" who is following Li from a distance, acts as the protector of the maid, using Li's identity. Gathering at the Dragon Inn are also a gang of Tarters, looking for buried treasure reputed to be nearby. These various rivals are virtually trapped at the Dragon Inn due to the imminent mother of a sand storms.

Even with the bigger production staff and several teams of special effects artists, Tsui uses what he has judiciously in support of his story. There's more than just special effects, be it the wire work with Li and company seeming to fly around, or when one sword seems to multiply during a duel. Tsui still relies on old fashion virtues like filming the action in a way that stays consistent with where the characters are within a given space, and using dramatic and precise framing. One of the best visual moments is an overhead shot following a sandstorm, a visual joke, with the camera filming the characters far enough overhead, that they appear like ants emerging from a hole in the sand. Those with 3D Blu-ray sets can get a fuller visual experience, especially during the fight sequences.

While Jet Li gets top billing, the film is more of an ensemble effort. Gordon Liu, whose presence links this film to those produced by the Shaw Brothers, has a small role here as well. Most of the dramatic weight is carried by two younger actresses with more recent association with Tsui, Zhou Xun and Kwai Lunmei. Both actresses have been awarded for their performances, Zhou as the Lady Knight, and Kwai in a frequently funny performance, in Mongolian, as the leader of the Tarter gang.

The DVD comes with "Making of" and "Behind the Scenes" supplements, as well as the interviews. For those unfamiliar with the actors, it would have helped to have onscreen identification. That woman with the short hair talking about Tsui Hark's intentions? She's Nansun Shi. Not only is she one of the producers, but she's also Tsui Hark's wife.

flying swords of dragon gate 3.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 2, 2012 08:13 AM