The film starts and ends with the majestic music from the Overture of the "Dagger Society" Suite. And those are the best parts of the film. Tsui Hark's latest effort, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, is a letdown. To be charitable, it is at best a passable martial arts flick starring Jet Li. Rest assured, if you are looking for your monthly kick of Chinese action films, this will not disappoint because there is so much action packed into two hours that you will either come out of the theatre happily dazed, or with a migraine that should clear within a few hours.
Billed as the first Chinese wu xia 3-D flick, Flying Swords is actually based on a loose remake of Raymond Lee's Dragon Inn (1992), itself a remake of King Hu's Dragon Inn (1967). The plot of Flying Swords is triggered when a lowly woman servant is accused of having an affair with a palace guard. She escapes but is soon hunted down by the army. A mysterious woman with extraordinary martial arts skills intervenes and saves her. They then make their way to "Dragon Inn" where the bulk of the film focuses on, and where most of the action takes place.
Hark denies his film is a remake, but a reimagining of old material. I can't judge because as of this review, I have not seen the earlier films. Nevertheless, storytelling as always takes a backseat in this sort of films. There is, however, some effort put in to provide some history for "Dragon Inn", and the relationship between the aforementioned mysterious woman (played by Zhou Xun) and Jet Li's character, Chow Wai On. Unfortunately, much of the effort that has gone to beefing up the story becomes secondary, or even pointless, when the full action starts past the hour mark.
The use of 3-D technology in a period wu xia film like Flying Swords may seem anachronistic. But it is a direction worth exploring. I praise Hark for taking up the challenge, but while this film shows the potential, it far from fulfils it. Much of the 3-D is centred on cheap thrills, like daggers flying at you. The use of 3-D in rendering the environment leaves much to be desired as human characters and inanimate objects look too small and artificial. That is not the worse part. You will know why when you get to see the CGI effects on show.
CGI effects are not only unrealistic, but they are used so overwhelmingly that most of the action become superficial. The artistic craft of Chinese martial arts, while still well-choreographed by Hark's team, is reduced to mere "fighting scenes". The final nail in the coffin comes in a sequence that sees Chow fighting his main nemesis in a whirling tornado. What you will see is not a brilliant fight between two skillful opponents, but a ruthless competition between CGI and 3-D effects. At the end of the day, nobody wins, technology included. With all due respect to Hark, who is a capable director, Flying Swords is what would look like if Michael Bay had directed his version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).