A reimagining of 1992’s New Dragon Gate Inn. Ming Dynasty general Chow Wai-On (Jet Li), finds himself at odds with Yu Hua-Tia, an evil, power-hungry eunuch. When these two adversaries cross paths with Lin Yan-Qiu at the titular Dragon Gate Inn, the scene is set for an epic confrontation.
Just as some silent film actors got flattened by the sound bandwagon, 3D has the capacity to make some directors look like mere conjurers overwhelmed and overly preoccupied by a new parlour trick. However, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate demonstrates that Tsui Hark is not one of those casualties.
Why 3D works so well here is because, in many ways, Tsui’s frenzied filmmaking has been building toward it before the current mania for this 1950s technology began. The frenetic Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and the under-rated The Blade (1995) are just warm-ups. Despite the 'wrong way go back' career move of going to the States (Double Team 1997), Tsui’s fanbase has kept the faith and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate won’t disappoint them. It not only builds on past glories (it’s a very loose remake of Tsui’s 1992 Dragon Inn - a reimagining of King Hu’s 1967 film of the same name), it also sets the bar very high for the 3D wuxia movies to follow.
The set-up as per the earlier versions is that several groups arrive at a trading post in the middle of the desert known as the Dragon Inn. In this version, hiding at the Inn there is a runaway pregnant concubine (Mavis Fan) and a female warrior (Zhou Xun) who carries the torch (and a flute) for an ex-lover. In pursuit of the concubine are the soldiers of His Highness, Yu Huatian (Chen Kun). Yu’s soldiers come into immediate conflict with some tattooed Tartars who are in search of treasure buried near the inn. Before a battle erupts, the two groups are interrupted by the arrival of female warrior Gu (Li Yuchun) and her ex-lover, business partner and Yu lookalike Wind Blade (Chen Kun again). As these three groups mistrustfully circle each other, warrior Zhou Huai’an (Jet Li) arrives with his ensemble as he looks for"¦ well maybe he’s looking for the concubine or maybe he’s looking for the woman with the flute. Adding tension to the mix is the anticipated arrival of a mystical sandstorm that will trap them all within Dragon Inn.
Difficult to fit into one paragraph, the story may have audiences sweating as they try to keep up, but the action dazzles from the outset. A stunning opening fight in a shipyard has wooden beams, arrows and knives flying toward the screen. While debris and weapons flying toward the screen is 3D’s raison d’etre, Tsui shows more imagination than most. He doesn’t stop with the usual hurtling sharp objects, but provides visual excitement with unfurling chains and ropes as well.
Even in the more static application of 3D, Tsui has tailored his direction to take full advantage of the technology. High and low angles abound and props like ladders, banners and flagpoles are usually presented at 45 degree or even sharper angles to engage the eye. Unlike most 3D films Tsui is working the technology almost all the time, so that it becomes a normal way of viewing things – as opposed to many films that only have one or two tricks up their sleeve.