Force of Nature
I suppose it's a case of never say never. Despite a rather public fall out from the Once Upon a Time in China series, where Tsui Hark had to replace Jet Li in the title role, one wondered if the two will ever collaborate in a film again, and with the renewed interest in martial arts genre, and the obvious big time opportunity to fuse 3D into it, proved irresistible for the two of them to come together once more in a remake/reimagining of a swordfighting epic that started off with King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn back in 1967, and Tsui Hark's own version with New Dragon Gate Inn in 1992.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate expands upon the mythos created in the earlier two films, and throws in a lot more formidable characters as well as their respective selfish objectives and missions, starting with the lead character of Zhou Huai'an (Jet Li), a vigilante in the Ming Dynasty responsible for a spate of killings of corrupt court officials. With the King forming the East and West Bureaus in the same fashion as the FBI and CIA respectively, an incredible set action piece that serves as a prologue has Zhou dispatching the head of the East Bureau in a special appearance by the legendary Gordon Liu, to make the case of how powerful Zhou is with his lightning quick reflexes and special moves that we don't see much of, and gets that special effects boost as well.
You see, Zhou disappears for about more than half the movie, which is a pity since Jet Li's star billing is used everywhere. Like a wandering swordsman who pops up every now and then to help the poor and the weak, the damsel in distress here is a palace handmaiden (Mavis Fan) who is on the run for carrying what would be the Dragon baby, impregnated by a naturally lecherous Emperor whose concubine sets the entire plot in motion for wanting any female with the possibility of producing a bloodline to the throne terminated. With Yu Hua Tian (Chen Kun), the head of the West Bureau her pillow partner, the game is afoot when the handmaiden gets rescued by Ling Lanqiu (Zhou Xun), the female equivalent of Zhou Huai'an whose brooding demeanour hints at a past romantic liaison with Zhou, and who harbours some secrets of the infamous Dragon Inn which is now populated by rag tag characters,
There are subplots galore in the film, whose screenplay is also written by Tsui Hark, that will call for your utmost attention in order to keep pace and make sense of it all, some properly developed while others relying on your past knowledge of the Dragon Inn mythos as foundation in which this retelling is based on, allowing you to connect the dots why certain events are done the way they are now. For instance, in Hu's original film, there are bloodlines on the run which get congregated at Dragon Inn, and this one loosely follows that rationale. And for once, we know why various groups descend upon this inn in the middle of nowhere, if not for the very ordinary reason of having treasure buried somewhere in the midst of the vast wasteland, and to hunt for it meant to exploit the tunnels beneath the inn, make sense of some inscribed couplets, and depending on 1 in 60 years (not 1 in 50 years ponding in Singapore mind you) geographic events to allow all the cards to fall into place.
But like the characters, all these take time to do so, and in the meantime we're kept occupied by the intricate plotting from both sides, starting with the brigand of hastily formed allies such as Kwai Lun-Mei's Tartan princess, the scholarly brains behind the operation White Blade who happens to be Yu Hua Tian's doppelganger (and hence Chen Kun with dual role responsibilities) that provides for that touch of comedy and complication for the villains, and White Blade's once romantic partner Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), together with the posse of Tartan warriors, and Dragon Inn staffers.
Romance features heavily in the subplots, and Tsui has to accede that while this provides another layer to the characters in not allowing them to slip into being loveless, soulless characters, they do detract from the plot and slow it down, mostly being that of unrequited love between Ling and Zhou - one suspects an attempt at matching up to the romance featured in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon here - and the pragmatic relationship formed between Gu and White Blade who decide to focus on a business partnership than a romantic one. While Zhou Xun may look very much like the infatuated willing to sacrifice all for love, you do know that Jet Li has problems with this filmic emotion from his filmography, and continues to do so up until today, something that 3D and special effects cannot help to enhance.
However, like all great martial arts epic, the fun always lies with the villains, and Flying Swords boasts a memorable number of them. Chen Kun's Yu Hua Tian has in possession the title Flying Swords that brings back the hey days where gimmicky weapons are the order of the day in swordfighting films, and is himself an adversary who knows no mercy. His double role here makes this almost like a Chen Kun starrer, and a well deserved one for the performance put in as characters on either side of the fence. His cronies too are as bad as bad can be, and are exponents in their own right, with Fan Siu Wong as the masked Ma Jing Liang, and the Western Bureau second in command Tan Lu Zi (Sheng Jian) who unfortunately gets outfoxed most of the time.
As a martial arts film, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has enough variance in its fighting stances and styles, and to exploit 3D, naturally has stocked up on its flying dagger numbers to provide for those throw-toward-the-screen moments. It's quite hit and miss here, as some effects were wondrously too rich and too artificial that takes you out of the movie and may look more in place in a science fiction film instead, while others are done just right to blend in with the period surroundings. With a number of Chinese films these days just slapping on special effects like it was butter on bread (Culprits being films like Legendary Amazons, The Sorcerer and White Snake which also starred Jet Li, and just about every period flick coming out in the last year or two), this one may have to convince those who are turned off by the earlier shoddy productions.
One of the highlights here belong to the use of weaponized threads which brought back some memories of the Tsui Hark produced Swordsman II film involving the Invincible Dawn character, but one suspects in order to include this in the film, an inexplicable character double-cross had to occur, and this is perhaps the largest, negative mark that Flying Swords had to endure that cheated its own plotting, and at the expense of logic. One can only hope there's an expanded version of the film that explains this character's motivation, because if there's any if at all, it remains the weakest and illogical at best with this version of the film. You can take it at face value, otherwise this will be one of the proverbial niggling splinter in the paw of a lion.
Tsui Hark continues to reinvent himself with each technological leap, with his Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983, not the 2001 monstrosity), the Once Upon a Time in China series, and now with Detective Dee leading the charge and sealing the deal for his comeback, Flying Swords may just be that magic ticket Tsui Hark needs to re-establish himself as one of the greats in Asian cinema after a woeful past decade. It may not be an instant classic, but Flying Swords does have the necessary ingredients to make it amongst the game changing tent-poles of the genre.