Flying Swords of Dragon Gate
I seem to be alone in my indifference to Tsui Hark's previous film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Folks like Roger Ebert and Noel Murray of AV Club have given it glowing reviews, and though you could chalk that up to gweilos' unfamiliarity with - and therefore lower standards for - Asian martial arts movies, it also made a ton of money in Hong Kong. But there's simply no denying that Tsui made some of the greatest Hong Kong films of all time, including quite a few personal favourites. This, plus Kozo of LoveHKFilm's positive review, finally convinced me to check out Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, a sort-of-sequel-cum-reimagining of his own 1992 Dragon Inn, and maybe give the new Tsui Hark - as opposed to '80s-and-'90s Tsui Hark - another chance.
It's better than Detective Dee. But like that movie, it's still a mess.
The thoroughly corrupt East and West Bureaus, given carte blanche powers by the Emperor, rule Ming Dynasty China with an iron grip. But Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li) opposes them, and has just crippled the West Bureau by taking out its leader (Gordon Liu). But the head of the East Bureau, the eunuch Yu Huatian (Aloys Chen), is a much more cunning opponent - however, he has his hands full tracking down a runaway palace maid named Su Huirong (Mavis Fan) who may be pregnant with the Emperor's illegitimate child. Huirong is rescued and aided by a masked female warrior (Zhou Xun) - who has also adopted the name Zhao Huai'an - and taken to the Dragon Inn, a "black inn" at the edge of the desert and frequented by various criminals and lowlifes. But whilst there, they must hide from the West Bureau men hunting them, led by their Deputy Chief (Sheng Chien), who cross swords with a band of Tartar bandits led by Princess Buludu (Guey Lun-Mei) who are also shacking up there. And then a travelling warrior named Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) arrives to add even more fuel to the fire - especially when her companion, a goofy non-fighter named Wind Blade (Aloys Chen), is a dead ringer for Yu Huatian. It turns out some of these folks are searching for a lost, treasure-filled city hidden under the desert sands - plus, there's a sandstorm of Biblical proportions heading their way.
LoveHKFilm probably put it best: this is a throwback to the wild, freewheeling, purely fun Hong Kong period kungfu movies of the '90s, a trend that Tsui himself probably created single-handedly. I have no particular love for films of this sort, although I reckon I can enjoy one if it's really good. This isn't. There are fun parts, but there's just too much of Tsui's kitchen-sink approach (that also spoiled Detective Dee) to coalesce into a proper movie - or even a proper narrative. There's two characters going by the same name, both of whom have a shared tragic backstory; there's a damsel in distress that at least one of them is trying to rescue (or is she? And why?); then there's the inn which has a penchant for serving human flesh, and there's more than a fair bit of casual cannibalism here; then there's a new faction of dubious morality that lock horns with the established antagonists; then another two characters of mysterious intentions arrive at the inn, one of whom introduces the wacky face double hijinks. All this before even the lost city.
Yes, it's all a great big mess; albeit an entertaining one, but only fitfully so. Kungfu films of the '90s showcased spectacular fight scenes, even if they were usually of the wire-fu variety - but the artificial, CGI-laden ones here will make a martial arts aficionado long for the good old days of wire-fu. They're dull, and the cartoony jumping-and-flying CGI figures are more likely to evoke laughs rather than thrills. (Tsui hired the SFX supervisor of Avatar for this film, and to be fair, the environmental vistas are pretty good - the human figures, not so much.) Maybe because it was filmed in 3D - which is, as usual, not the format I watched it in - in which case it appears Tsui's approach to making a 3D kungfu film is to lose all the stunning athleticism and intricate choreography of martial arts. Or you could point the blame at the cast, of whom only Jet Li - and maybe some of the minor baddies - have any kungfu background.
But then again, neither did folks like Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, all of whom looked fine playing various wuxia badasses in their heyday. It's just as likely that the current crop of pan-Chinese stars simply lack the magnetic screen presence of their predecessors, even if Zhou Xun can do fine in roles that don't call for her to kick ass. But that doesn't explain why Jet Li is practically phoning it in. And it doesn't explain why the characters are so thin, the typical wuxia themes of honour, righteousness and love they play out so half-baked they might as well have not been in there. It may have been because of the dubbing, which makes everyone sound stiff and stilted even though the version I watched was in Mandarin and most of the cast are mainland Chinese.
To be fair, Guey Lun-Mei seems to be having a hell of a good time playing Lusty Exotic Warrior Princess. And the other good performance is a dual one from Aloys Chen, who plays both the prissy eunuch villain and the doofus amongst kungfu warriors with no kungfu skills of his own and makes them both instantly distinctive. Around the halfway mark, the various characters coalesce into two opposing factions, and although the good guys don't entirely trust each other, at least it's not as confusing to keep track of who's where and wants what. Some of the plotting is quite clever, especially the ingenious scheme to break the everyone-stuck-in-the-inn-and-wanting-to-kill-each-other stalemate. As messy as it is, it's never boring or tiresome.
So yes, it's an improvement over Detective Dee, and I'm hopeful it'll herald even better movies from Tsui. Maybe it's just taking him a while to get back into his '90s groove. I think he's still got it; he just needs to get better adjusted to the changes in the Chinese film industry over the past quarter-century. Like CGI. And actors inexperienced at the kind of larger-than-life scenery-chewing roles that his brand of wuxia demands. And his own lack of practice at making that same kind of movie for which he became famous. On behalf of Hong Kong movie fans everywhere, I sure hope he's still got it.
NEXT REVIEW: Relationship Status
Expectations: cautiously optimistic