by Spank the Monkey
About a quarter of a century ago, I saw my first film featuring Chinese people flying through the air waving swords about, and it blew my goddamn mind. Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain was made by Tsui Hark in 1982, and was as wild an introduction to the delights of Hong Kong cinema as you could wish for. As I leapt onto every subsequent film from the territory that the Scala cinema could throw at me, I’d tell anyone who’d listen just how incomprehensible HK movies sometimes seemed to a Western viewer.
After a few years, I’d seen enough of them to realise that I was being unfair. It wasn’t that all HK movies were incomprehensible: if I was honest about it, it was really just Tsui Hark’s. And thirty years after Zu, his latest film Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate shows he can still provide that unique combination of eye-buggering visual spectacle and fantastically garbled storytelling. All that’s changed in the interim is the scale.
It’s not that Tsui Hark neglects plot in his movies: quite the opposite. His period pictures, in particular, are packed with references to ancient folklore as well as earlier classics of the genre. Flying Swords hails back to his 1992 New Dragon Gate Inn, which in turn references King Hu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn. The problem with Tsui in general is that he’s never been a believer in the adage ‘less is more’. Let’s not forget that one of his few Hollywood movies, a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick called Double Team, had a climax that involved Van Damme trying to fight Mickey Rourke while rescuing a baby from a marauding tiger in the middle of the Colosseum, which had been rigged with landmines.
Similarly, when it comes to story, Tsui tends to overload his films completely. From the opening narration, it looks like Flying Swords will be based around the conflict between two tyrannous agencies battling for power in Ming Dynasty China: the East Bureau and the West Bureau. But it quickly transpires that this is really going to be the story of a wandering swordsman who gloriously announces himself as “the nemesis of both bureaux, Zhou Huai’an!” As he’s played by Jet Li, this is a cause we can easily get behind.
But there’s another swordsman going around righting wrongs and calling himself Zhou Huai’an. As is so often the case in these tales, this swordsman is actually a woman with a mysterious past, whose real name is Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun). Ling has rescued a palace maid from the clutches of the boss of the West Bureau, and the two of them go into hiding at the Dragon Gate Inn, a place where standards of hygiene are low enough for the corpses of food-poisoned customers to end up on the menu. They’re quickly joined by their pursuers, plus an inquisitive Zhou wanting to find out more about his impersonator, plus a bunch of Tartars with their own reasons for being there, plus a guy who’s coincidentally the spitting image of West Bureau’s leader. Not to mention all the people taking shelter in the inn as the worst sandstorm in 60 years approaches. See what I mean about the plotting?
The big thing about Flying Swords is, well, its bigness. This is genre territory that Tsui Hark has covered before, but this time he’s doing it in IMAX 3D, making him the first Chinese filmmaker to tackle the ultra-large-screen format. Sadly, over here in the UK we won’t get to see the IMAX version, and even the 3D version will only get a brief outing in cinemas (as has become the norm) before going to home video. Which is a shame, because visual spectacle is the main thing it’s got going for it.
The plotting is all over the shop, as incident is piled upon incident. New characters are introduced far too late, and allegiances change with virtually no warning. Having characters double-crossing each other only really works if you cared about who they claimed to be in the first place. Even the tragic love story at the heart of the piece fails to grip – we’re told that there was an epic romance before the story started, but there’s no evidence of it from what we see on screen. All too often, long stretches of the film feel like people being moved into place in preparation for the next setpiece. You find yourself yearning for the goofy comedy that Tsui used to throw into even his more serious plots, which is surprisingly absent here.
The trick is to surrender to the film’s non-narrative pleasures, and thankfully there are plenty of those. For the most part, Tsui hasn’t lost his knack with an action sequence, keeping things mobile but knowing just when to keep the camera still for a few seconds. The sequences of flying people, collapsing sets and all-out mayhem all look terrific… until Tsui starts reaching for the CGI stuntpeople, at which point they start to look ridiculously fake. I can remember a time when hardcore kung fu fanatics ranted about the increasing use of wirework in films, but at least the people on the end of those wires were there. Whenever Jet Li is replaced in an unconvincing fashion with a shonkily-animated digital avatar, you find yourself pining for the days when directors would treat him like a Gerry Anderson puppet.
That’s not to say the CGI is uniformly bad in this movie: only when it’s being used to take things way beyond the scope of possibility, which sadly includes the overblown and overambitious sandstorm at its climax. Conversely, the opening shot – a breathtaking flight through a virtual harbour, the camera taking the most ridiculous route possible through the rigging of ships – is a tour de force up there with the beginning of Hugo, and shows off the film’s 3D at its best. There are obvious gimmicky uses here and there – hell, the film’s got the words Flying Swords in its title, what did you expect? – but mostly, the process is used to give depth to Tsui’s brilliantly stylised compositions. Its neatest touch is in the way the subtitles fit into the 3D scheme: they’re carefully positioned on screen so they don’t cross the planes of the image, and in a particularly witty touch are occasionally obscured by foreground objects.
I’ve seen Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate twice now: once theatrically in 3D, and once on the back of a plane seat in 2D. There’s no denying that when you don’t have the full impact of the visuals, the film loses an awful lot – it’s primarily a whizz-bang spectacle, and one that deserves to be seen on the biggest, most dimensional screen you can manage. If you can arrange that, then maybe you could end up with your mind blown too.
Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate is in cinemas now (briefly), and will be released on DVD and 3D Blu-ray by Revolver on October 29th.
Spank The Monkey is currently looking for ways in which he can drop the phrase ‘the nemesis of both bureaux’ into everyday conversation.