Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: Tsui Hark Does the 3D Thing

It was a time when eunuchs terrorized the land.  However, a handful of wandering knights are willing to challenge them, even at the cost of their lives.  Good multi-taskers, they will still find time for a bit of treasure-hunting in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (trailer here),Tsui Hark’s monster 3D return to the legendary Dragon Gate Inn world, which opens a special two-week IMAX-coming-straight-at-your-head limited engagement this Friday in New York.

Sort of but not really a sequel to Raymond Lee’s 1992 Dragon Gate Inn (produced and co-written by Tsui), Flying 3D picks up three years later in movie time.  Dragon Inn burned to the ground and the femme fatale proprietress disappeared under murky circumstances, but since there was a demand for a sketchy flophouse right smack in the middle of sandstorm alley, the inn has been rebuilt by a gang of outlaws.  While they might roll the occasional guest, they are really more interested in the legend of the fabulous gold buried beneath the sands.

Two mysterious swordsmen calling themselves Zhou Huai’an will find themselves at the remote outpost after tangling with the corrupt eunuch bureaucracy.  One Zhou has just rescued Su Huirong, a potentially embarrassing pregnant concubine from the forces of the East Bureau.  This Zhou also happens to be a she and she has some heavy history with the man she is impersonating.  For his part, the real Zhou Huai’an has just barely survived a nasty encounter with the East’s top agent, Yu Huatian. 

The doubling continues when fortune hunter Gu Shaotang shows up at the inn with her partner Wind Blade, a dead-ringer for the evil Yu.  Add to the mix a group of rowdy, hard-drinking Tartar warriors, led by their princess Buludu and you have a rather unstable situation.  Before long, sides have been chosen and a massive gravity-defying battle is underway, as the mother of all sandstorms bears down on Dragon Gate Inn.

Frankly, the 3D in Flying is so good, the initial scenes are a bit disorienting.  Tsui probably has a better handle on how to use this technology than just about any other big picture filmmaker, dizzyingly rendering the massive scale of the Ming-era wuxia world.  Flying is also quite progressive by genre standards, featuring not one but three first-class women action figures.  When the headlining Jet Li disappears from time to time, he really is not missed.  Of course, when it is time to go Mano-a-mano in the middle of a raging twister, he is the first to step up to the plate.

All kinds of fierce yet genuinely vulnerable, Zhou Xun is fantastic as Ling Yanquiu, the Twelfth Night-ish Zhou Huai’an.  Likewise, Li Yuchun is a totally convincing action co-star as the roguish Gu, nicely following-up on the promise she showed in Bodyguards and Assassins.  Yet, Gwei Lun Mei upstages everyone as the exotically tattooed, alluringly lethal barbarian princess.  Her Buludu is both more woman and more man than Xena will ever be.  In contrast, Chen Kun is a bit of a cold fish in his dual role, which suits the serpentine Yu just fine, but does not work so well for Wind Blade.

Throughout Flying, Tsui throws realism into the whirlwind and never looks back.  If you are distracted by scenes that look “fake,” many of the CGI fight scenes will have you beside yourself.  On the other hand, if you enjoy spectacle, you really have to see it.  Surpassing its predecessor in nearly every way, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a whole lot of illogical fun.  Highly recommended for everyone still reading this review, it opens for two weeks only this Friday (8/31) at the AMC Empire.