Fast as Lightning, Expert Timing, by David Bax
One of the hallmarks of Chinese, period-based martial arts films (loosely categorized under the term wuxia) is the possession of mystical, superhuman traits by its warrior characters. Often, these include the ability to soar and to manipulate the very air. In earlier days, this was achieved on film through the use of wires (hence the term “wire-fu”). Increasingly, though, the possibilities of computer-generated imagery and other technological tricks have expanded the limits of the genre. Tsui Hark, director of, among other things, the wuxia classic Once Upon a Time in China, has positioned himself at the forefront of these advancements. Last year, he gave us the highly entertaining Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which included such flourishes as a talking deer. This year, he establishes new boundaries by giving us the first 3D IMAX wuxia film, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. This new endeavor is also a nearly constant blast to watch, even if it sometimes seems more interested in technical feats than in its own characters and story.
Equaling the scope of the images is the sprawling and confusing nature of the plot. I’ll tell you as much as I’m sure of. The land is split into two ruling factions, each evil in its own way. Jet Li plays Zhao Huaian, the leader of a small band dedicated to challenging them both. When a pregnant maid escapes one of the imperial palaces – perhaps carrying the progeny of royalty – she is aided by a lone female warrior whose skills rival Zhao’s. Zhao decides to lend his talents for the maid’s safety but, in so doing, falls into a trap designed to catch him and, perhaps coincidentally, becomes embroiled in a multi-party search for buried gold. There’s actually a lot more to it than that but, frankly, it’s not super-important.
Despite the byzantine plot, Tsui wastes no time getting from one action set-piece to the next. These are fun, thrilling and imaginative and they usually have no more than five to ten minutes between them. Also, unlike other 3D films in which the effect becomes commonplace and forgettable after the first reel, Tsui repeatedly finds eye-catching uses of the format. A bird’s-eye shot of a mysterious person sitting on a chain bridge high above a river dock is one of the more memorable three-dimensional images I’ve seen.
Like many of these types of films, the influence of American Westerns is hard to overlook. By the halfway point, all of our disparate characters have assembled at a remote desert inn, where an impending storm has led to the evacuation of all but the key players. This results in many opportunities for windblown standoffs, all of which Tsui seizes upon. Also nodding to Westerns is the noteworthy use of horses. As he did in Detective Dee, Tsui finds ways for his characters to battle on, around and atop the animals as they gallop at full speed. Call it horse-fu.
I haven’t even gotten to talk about things like shattered swords being flung in all directions or pieces of gold thread fine enough to slice people in two but I must take a moment to discuss the film’s shortcomings. The abundance of characters allows copious opportunities for strategy and double-cross. Unfortunately, that means Flying Swords occasionally suffers from the Inception disease of things having to come to a stop while the strategies and double-crosses are explained to us. Luckily, it’s never too long before they cease the exposition and get back to leaping around and slicing each other up again.
If you see Flying Swords of Dragon Gate with a friend, you may spend the walk back to the car trying to puzzle out what specifically was going on at certain times. But you’ll likely spend the ride home simply talking about which parts you thought were the most awesome.