Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
Note: This review contains many spoilers. In particular there is a major twist in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate which I describe and discuss.
FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was directed by Tsui Hark and released in 2011 in 3D. It was also written by Hark (who was a co-writer for the 1992 script as well). The movie stars Jet Li (Zhao Huai'an), Zhou Xun (Ling Yanqiu), Li Yuchun (Gu Shaotang), Chen Kun (Yu Huatian and Wind Blade), Louis Fan (Ma Jinliang), Gwei Lun-mei (Zhang Xiao Wen), Mavis Fan (Su Huirong), and features a brief appearance by Gordon Liu (Wan Yulou).
This film is a loose sequel to the 1992 New Dragon Inn that leaves a lot of the connective tissue to the imagination.
The Dragon Gate movies had a very strong influence on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, so I decided to discuss each one on the blog. I reviewed the original film and the 1992 version earlier this year. You can find those here: Dragon Gate Inn and New Dragon Gate Inn.
Once again, for those who don't like spoilers, I reveal a major plot twist in the review.
Set during the Ming Dynasty, when Eunuchs have effectively taken control of the empire, the film has a number of narrative threads. The hero Zhao Huai'an, has been killing officials from the corrupt East Bureau (a Eunuch Controlled agency), so West Bureau, led by the Eunuch Yu Huatian, takes over the effort to track Huai'an down and bring him to justice. Yu Huatian is having an affair with Royal Consort Wan and keeps her position secure by executing any rivals who become pregnant. When a maid named Su Huirong carrying the Emperor's baby escapes, he uses the opportunity to lure out and track Huai'an.
|Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu)|
and Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li)
Things turn out more complicated than Yu Huatian believes however, when an imposter masquerading as Huai'an rescues the maid and takes her through the desert to Dragon Gate Inn. On the way they pass two steles with 400-year-old Xi Xia script that reads "Dragon Gate" as these are the only remaining legible words. This is where the inn takes its name form. The imposter we learn is a woman, who carries a flute that viewers recognize belonged to Yau Mo-Yan in the first film (see below). Both Yu Huatian and Zhao Huai'an track them to Dragon Gate. It was burned down in a fire by the previous boss lady (Ling Yanqiu) but rebuilt. When the imposter and the maid reach Dragon Gate Inn, a group of Tatars lead by Princess Zhang Xiao Wen are there causing a ruckus. Officials from West Bureau arrive in disguise, forcing the maid and the imposter to seek shelter in tunnels below the inn.
The Tatars and the officials don't get along, with the Tatar Princess attacking their leader to test his Kung Fu. In a call-back to the original Dragon Gate Inn, the officials attempt to poison the Tatar's wine, only to have their own wine poisoned, sickening one of their own, Master Lu Bu.
|Yanqiu (Zhou Xun)|
As tensions grow between the Tatars and officials, two more guests knock on the door. One of them is a man (Wind Blade) who looks exactly like Eunuch Yu Huatian (leaving his men uncertain if is is a ploy), the other is a woman (Gu Shaotang).
In the tunnels below Dragon Gate, Su Huirong begins to suspect that the imposter is the woman who owned the inn and burned it down three years before. She doesn't admit to that identity but it is strongly suggested through the movie that she is the former proprietor (and I will refer to her by that name from this point on).
Yu Huatian commands his men from a nearby outpost and has the two steles unearthed. They find additional text, with the words: Dragon Gate Fly Cycle. His men inform him that since they were unearthed a black sandstorm started moving in, but he refuses to place them back. When one of his men tells him about the look-alike at the Inn, he decides to try to use it to his advantage and creates a password for his men, "Dragon Gate Fly Cycle, Fake or Genuine?"
|Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li)|
Back at the Inn it becomes clear that Wind Blade, Gu Shaotong and the Tatars are all working with the staff for some hidden purpose. They reveal that Yanqiu (who was known as Jade in the 1992 version) was using the tunnels below the inn to find a vast treasure from the Western Xia Empire buried beneath the desert hundreds of years ago. However when officials came there to arrest Zhao Huai'an and intercept two children, this disrupted her plans. The Tatars, Wind Blade, Gu Shaotong are all part of a team, with each member bringing a special skill to help them unearth the treasure. Apparently the full inscription on the steles reads "Come, cycle, fly, swirl, dragon, sand, sea, dedicate, god, gate." They decode this to learn that every 60 years the sands blow and the treasure of the empire is revealed, but that it will be buried again by a great sand storm soon after. This leaves them a brief moment to recover the treasure, and the presence of officials complicates matters for them.
While going over their plans they discover Huirong and Yanqiu in one of the tunnels. Initially they fight, but then join forces. Zhao Huai'an soon arrives and also joins with the team.
|Yu Huatian (Chen Kun)|
Yanqiu appears to be in love with Zhao Huai'an, which is why she impersonates him. He pleads with her to leave the martial world. She returns the flute to him, but he is cold and does not return her affection. She tells him "I always felt in my heart you were looking at me instead of that woman". He replies "She gave her life for me". This is a reference to the events in 1992 New Dragon Gate Inn (see below) and establishes how the movie connects to that backstory. To convince her to leave he pretends to have a tender moment with Su. Although she isn't fooled by this, she does decide to depart.
Zhao Huai'an persuades the rest of them to attack Yu Huatian before he can strike them. He tells them that the Eunuch will kill Wind Blade due to his striking resemblance (earlier Wind Blade managed to briefly fool some of Yu Huatian's men to their advantage). Zhao Huai'an concocts an elaborate plan to divide the enemy, then attack from four directions. They coerce Master Lu Bu into releasing the official's horses in exchange for the antidote. They then create a distraction and steal the officials clothing. This enables them to approach the Inn from the desert on horseback with Wind Blade at the helm, so they believe their leaders arrived. Once they learn the secret password, their plan is air tight.
The plan goes without a hitch, they ride up to Dragon Gate and attack the officials as soon as they step forward, forcing them to take shelter in the inn. They then take off and allow the real Yu Huatian to arrive with his retinue. Thinking that Yu Huatian is still the imposter the men in the inn attack and the officials fight amongst themselves.
At this point Zhao Huai'an signals the charge. All goes to plan and Yanqiu ends up returning to join them. The battle is epic, with standout double sword play from Ma Jinliang, the second in command of West Bureau. The heroes are victorious just as the winds unearth the former capital of the Xi Xia Empire. While Yu Huatian and Zhao Huai'an have a death-defying duel in the black cyclone of sand, the others delve into the ruins.
|Yanqiu gives Su Huirong the blade|
Both the Eunuch and Huai'an are dumped by the storm into a central chamber of the ruins and the others find them as they come to. There is a standoff, with the Eunuch taking Gu Shaotong as a hostage and trying to divide them. Zhao Huai'an convinces the others to leave with some of the treasure while he stays with Shaotong and Yu Huatian. As they are making their way out, Su Huirong suddenly attacks Yanqui from behind with a dagger and flees back to the central chamber to help the Eunuch, leaving a trail of deadly razor wire traps in her wake to prevent them from following her.
There is an amazing final battle inside the chamber as the combatants scale collapsed scaffolding and have to evade Huirong's invisible but deadly threads. In the end both Huirong and Yu Huatian are killed, with Yanqiu delivering the final blow and saving Zhao Huai'an.
AN EPIC A VISUALLY DAZZLING ADVENTURE
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a smooth blend of wuxia, special effects extravaganza and classic adventure. The swordplay is certainly a bit different than you might find in a film with less CGI and a heck of a lot faster. You really have to keep your eyes open at all times so you don't miss anything. Sometimes this gives it a lighter than reality look, but it is meant to be fantasy, not grounded in reality.
One interesting fight is the opening sequence where Zhao Huai'an kills the head of east bureau, who is played by Gordon Liu. What I like about this scene is it counters expectations. When you see Liu, you think you are in for an evenly matched fight, because he is such a revered veteran of the genre. But Liu plays his Eunuch old and wine-soaked, an easy kill for Zhao Huai'an. This could seem like a misuse of Liu's talents, but I found it pleasantly surprising (and still action-packed).
It is also a movie that fully delivers on its title. These are truly flying swords, to the point that the hero and villain face off inside a swirling tornado of sand. It is wuxia that fully embraces the genre's fantastic conceits and takes them a step beyond. This film is a ride, and it is a lot of fun if you can sit back and simply enjoy it.
I've seen some people complain about Flying Swords of Dragon Gate on various grounds, sometimes critiquing Jet Li's characterization of the character compared to the role as it was portrayed in New Dragon Gate Inn by Tony Leung Ka-Fai. The performances are different, but I think that is fair for a couple of reasons. First the characters in New Dragon Gate experienced a horrible tragedy at the end of the movie. Both are portrayed in much more somber tones. It makes sense that they wouldn't be as jovial or light-hearted as they were three years ago. Jet Li's Zhao Huai'an is dark and still grieving. The same can be said for Ling Yanqiu. Zhao Xun plays her very cold and stoic. They've both been whittled down by their experiences in the martial world.
Yanqiu appears to be Jade from the first movie (Maggie Cheung's character) and has undergone a transformation. Her character in New Dragon Gate Inn was charming, seductive, colorful and concerned with the pleasures of the world. She now follows the path of Zhao Huai'an and is a martial hero in her own right. In the end, while I adored Cheung's performance in the 1992 version and thought that Tony Leung Ka-Fai was great as well, for the purposes of the story Hark was trying to tell, the changes work. I also don't think they could have repeated Cheung's performance without having her reprise the role. That would have been very interesting if they had done so, but this is clearly not just a sequel but something else, it is a sequel and, in Hark's own words, "a re-imagining". By having different actors it leaves more room for speculation. And because the film plays so many games with identity, from Yanqiu impersonating Huai'an to Yu Huatian and Wind Blade impersonating each other, that it has an almost dream-like quality to it.
In a way, if Yanqiu is Jade, this makes the 1992 and the 2011 films her story, more than Huai'an's. In the 1992 Dragon Gate Inn, Jade was the proprietor who seduced men and turned them into meat for the kitchen's buns. Zhao Huai'an* came to the Inn to rendezvous with his lover Yau Mo-Yan, who had just rescued two the two children of Defense Minister Yang. Jade knew about a series of tunnels below the inn leading to safety. When Zhao Huai'an and Yao Mo-Yan became trapped there by officials, Huai'an married Jade as a ruse to learn the location of the tunnel entrance. In the end all three faced off against the Eunuch Tsao Siu-Yan. They killed Tsao Siu-Yan but were wounded and Yau Mo-Yan was killed saving Huai'an, leaving behind her flute (which was their love token). He departed and Jade burned down the inn to go find him.
I like this because Jade was the most compelling character in the earlier version, and she had developed a lot over the course of the film. It really brings both movies together, especially when she skill Yu Huatian and saves Huai'an at the end. They do take pains to keep things somewhat vague, and it is presented as a re-imagining, so this isn't the only way the story can be read. But this reading actually makes me enjoy New Dragon Gate Inn even more when I rematch it.
For me, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has everything. One consequence of having everything is not all elements get the screen time they might otherwise would. So you don't have the extensive dialogue from the 1967 or 1992 version. Again, I think given the radical departure this takes from those movies, this is okay. Each movie is unique in its own way, which is a good thing. I like them all, and I get a different experience from watching them. The 1992 version feels very different form the 1967 one, so it is fitting that the 2011 version stand on its own.
|Maggie Cheung (middle) with Tony Leung Ka-Fai (Right)|
in the 1992 New Dragon Gate Inn
A complaint some have is the twist where Su suddenly attacks Ling Yanqiu by stabbing her repeatedly from behind and reveals herself to be a government agent. People have observed this comes out of the blue and appears to be a twist for its own sake. But if you pay close attention the groundwork for this twist is paved well in advance. Su carries a lovers bao with her (a perfumed satchel that is a token of affection). She drops this twice at crucial moments. The first time when she is first apprehended by West Bureau soldiers. She drops this in the river and this is what initially attracts their suspicions. At first it seems she is ditching it to keep it off her person if searched, but in hindsight it seems more likely she drops it to signal her presence to the guards. At Dragon Gate she drops it a second time while she and Yuquing are hiding outside the kitchen. Again it is through this that the soldiers know they are present. Also if you pay attention to the dialogue between Yu Huatian and Ma Jinliang when Su first escapes with Yuquing (who is masquerading as Zhao Huai'an) it doesn't contradict Su being a secret plant at all. Not just that but there is something really off about Su the whole movie. It is hard to put one's finger on, she simply doesn't fit in and seems ghostly by comparison to the others. She stands out. Some still may feel the betrayal is too abrupt, for me the more I watch Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn, the more it fits.
I highly, highly recommend the movie to anyone with an interest in wuxia or adventure. You don't even really have to like martial arts films to enjoy Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. I suggest watching the subtitles, not the dubbed version. Usually I don't make recommendations on this front, the lines are all basically the same, but the acting on the dub really doesn't work for me. Also if you have access to a 3D television the Blueray comes with a 3D version of the movie on a separate disc.
For gamers this is a big recommendation. All the Dragon Gate movies are going to serve a GM well but this is the easiest one to pull material from because it has a massive dungeon city buried beneath the sands.
*In that version spelled Chow Wai-on