Almost 30 years ago, Tsui Hark — a young Hong Kong producer/director/writer, who had returned to Asia after graduating from the University of Texas — was the leading force in bringing Hollywood special effects technology to Hong Kong movies. So it's not surprising that now he is the one bringing IMAX 3D into the mix.
"Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" is, as the title telegraphs, a period martial arts film — with some flying, lots of swords, no dragons (sorry), and one gate. More significantly to Chinese audiences, the title references King Hu's 1967 classic "Dragon Inn" and Tsui's 1992 like-titled remake (sometimes known as "New Dragon Gate Inn"), which is as much a classic, though its virtues are very different. The current film is, like many hit follow-ups both here and in Asia, maybe a remake, maybe a sequel, or maybe just an exploitation of the title.
The plot was complicated but comprehensible in 1967 and 1992; here it's just complicated. The basic setup is the same: Various sides in a power struggle during the Ming Dynasty converge at the inn near Dragon Gate — a hostel that constitutes the only outpost of civilization in the middle of a cruel border desert. Secret alliances among the factions are made and dissolved; characters are revealed to not be what they seem; and everybody's lying to everybody. As per convention, scheming eunuchs are among the string pullers.
The film opens with an imperious bad guy — a small role inhabited by the venerable Gordon Liu ("Kill Bill," "The Man with the Iron Fists") — about to execute some alleged traitors when Zhou Huai'an (Jet Li) comes to the rescue. Those who survive flee to the inn along with several others, most notably a maid (Mavis Fan), who has committed the capital crime of being pregnant with the emperor's child. Fights ensue.
"Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" is not only the first Asian movie in IMAX 3D; it appears to be that format's first fully subtitled film. ("Avatar" had a modest number of subtitles.) And therein lies a problem: for two hours, your eyes are constantly flitting up to the image and down to the subtitles — normally not a problem. But the size and closeness of the IMAX screen, the way the 3D depth requires frequent changes of your eyes' focus, and the rapid-fire on-screen action combine to make the experience uncomfortable, particularly for older viewers. (I was worn out and a little head-ache-y, and other attendees coming out of screenings talked about drowsiness.)
I'd like to think that this is sheerly a technical issue and that the film will be more fun on home video in a regular, old 2D format. But there is some reason to suspect that, even then, "Flying Swords" will seem like one of Tsui's less successful efforts. Some of the action is cleverly conceived and choreographed, and — just like the last decade or two of Hollywood action films — you get a lot of literal bang for your 15 or so bucks.
But one of Tsui's best qualities has always been his ability to infuse even his most serious movies with humor. I've seen roughly 40 titles that Tsui either directed or, as producer, left his stylistic mark on. And this is the first one with almost no traces of comedy.
"Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" is playing at AMC Burbank 16 and other theaters.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).