Brimming with high-flying acrobatics and the awe-inspiring elegance of martial-arts sword fighting, 'Flying Swords of Dragon Gate' is a sweeping epic drama of romance and action with a pinch of absurd comedy. True to the expectations of the wuxia genre, the fantasy-adventure movie never feels limited or restrained by those expectations, forging ahead to capture a new — and perhaps younger — audience unfamiliar with this style of filmmaking. What's grown into traditional wire-work choreography is artificially enhanced by the digital magic of CGI — a style of filmmaking quickly growing into a tradition of its own. The blend is not always seamless, but the results remain a delightful piece of popcorn escapism.
Adding to this grand, and ultimately empty, spectacle of visual delights and mastery is the use of the latest in 3D photography and technology. Supposedly with the help of Chuck Comisky, visual-effects supervisor of James Cameron's record-shattering sci-fi epic 'Avatar,' this is part of an effort to bring wuxia up to the 21st Century and to give moviegoers a different, more immersive experience. In all honesty, the experiment seems to have worked, as it adds another layer of visual ecstasy to a genre that usually already impresses with breathless eye-candy. Along with an array of swords, punches, kicks and other random debris flying at our face, amounting to really nothing more than typical 3D gimmicks, the cinematography of Sung Fai Choi shows the desert landscapes of China in all its sprawling, spacious beauty, drawing viewers into the fantasy without a second thought to how filmmakers accomplished such feats.
The efforts also pay off in a rather surprising way by slightly elevating an otherwise average and largely unfocused story — arguably, a similar tact employed in Cameron's mega-blockbuster, where the visuals engulf generic storytelling. The script by Hark Tsui, producer of other highly enjoyable martial arts film who also takes director credits here, tries to balance up to four separate subplots centering on legendary Robin Hood-like hero Zhou Huai'an (Jet Li). Sadly, the character feels underutilized, along with Li's acting talents, coming and going within the narrative whenever convenient. Despite the film pretending to be about his vigilante exploits saving lower-class serfs from the corrupt dictatorship of the ruling monarchy, it feels rare seeing Li serve as its centerpiece.
The main plotline is supposed to see Zhou confronting a decidedly talented and formidable opponent in eunuch Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), commander of the Western Bureau troops. And for the most part, this inevitable battle does occur, but it's also aligned with other side issues which tend to distract. One such issue is Huatian following orders to assassinate a pregnant runaway palace maid (Mavis Fan) and ends up at the Dragon Gate Inn where the young woman hides under the protection of a mysterious female warrior (Zhou Xun). It's here that things grow exceedingly confounding and excessively elaborate, as a team of treasure hunters led by Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and the Tartar princess Buludu (Gwai Lun Mei) suddenly become an important focal point. Chen Kun plays another role as Shaotang's subordinate Wind Blade, whose impersonation of the commander makes way for minor comedy relief.
These separate subplots all clash in an assortment of wordplay, swords, high kicks and a fantastical display of martial arts imagination as an impending sandstorm threatens their lives. Though weighed down heavily by an overabundance of plot and characters, this loose remake and pseudo-sequel that blends Hark's own 'New Dragon Gate Inn' with King Hu's wuxia classic still manages to entertain and delight through its technical achievements alone. Ignore the failures of the script, allow to be immersed in the spectacular visuals and one can reasonably walk away pleased to have seen 'Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.' It's a frenetic but surprisingly entertaining martial arts film that embraces the technological possibilities of bringing the wuxia genre up to the 21st Century.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Vivendi Entertainment and Indomina Releasing bring 'Flying Swords of Dragon Gate' to 3D Blu-ray as a two-disc package with a glossy slipcover. Both discs are Region A locked, BD25 on opposing panels, except one shows the 3D version while the other is 2D with supplements. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips.
The 'Dragon Gate' remake debuts unto 3D Blu-ray with an amazingly stunning and near-reference 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 encode. Shot entirely in digital HD and with the supervision of Chuck Comisky (of 'Avatar' fame), the video displays a beautiful and natural sense of depth. Desert landscapes seem sprawling and feel expansive with objects moving about in the very far distance, penetrating deep into the screen and creating a nice window effect. Interior scenes are much of the same, as a variety items and people are impressively layered with a great pop-up book effect. There are times, however, when such visuals seem exaggerated, but thankfully the feeling doesn't last long since it looks great either way.
Right from the start, as the camera weaves its way through the masts of a naval fleet and the credits fly at our face, we get the impression director Tsui Hark wants to take complete advantage of the technology. So, the 2.35:1 image is constantly calling attention to itself with endless gimmick shots and deliberate scenes the noticeably show the separation of foreground information from the background. Actors block specific portions of the frame while others stand opposite of them at a distance, intentionally overstressing the 3D effect. Martial arts fight sequences have swords, daggers and arrows pierce through the screen, and other random debris and wood splinters shatter all over the place. Granted, it all looks cool and adds new life to the wuxia genre, but it can also border on the artificial rather than the immersive.
In the 2D realm, the high-def transfer is sharply detailed and revealing. Hairs are distinct, the stitching on a variety of costumes and fabrics are crisp, and facial complexions expose every pore and minor blemish. Textures are lifelike, and the fine lines in the architecture are discrete and crystal-clear. Despite the darkened glasses, primaries are richly-saturated and sumptuous while secondary hues appear full-bodied and warm. Contrast is mostly spot-on and comfortably bright, but a few highlights seem a tad on the hot side. Blacks are also generally accurate with excellent shadow delineation, but a couple scenes lose some of their luster and fall a bit flat. There was also some very negligible ringing and ghosting in spots, but they're easy to ignore and don't take away from the enjoyment of this otherwise terrific 3D presentation.
This modernized take of the wuxia genre comes with an exhilarating DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, adding another thrilling aspect to an already enjoyable 3D video. Imaging feels expansive, creating a large wall of sound that's nearly consistent from beginning to end. Swords whoosh and swish across the screen, insects hiss loudly all around, and the wind blows from one side of the room to the other. Every clank, clink and ding of metal hitting metal is detailed and precise thanks to an excellent mid-range that reaches the higher frequencies without the slightest hint of distortion. Amid the all the noise and chaos, vocals are perfectly pitched and intelligible at all times.
The lossless mix also packs a powerful and authoritative low-end which can at times rattle walls and shake furniture. The final battle sequence during a looming sand storm is especially impressive as bass can reach some amusing ultra-low levels, adding to the action-packed excitement. The room fills with the ear-splitting sounds of wind and sand while debris pans flawlessly from one channel to the next. Daggers, swords and a slew of other sharp weaponry flying overhead also occupies the rears, convincingly extending and creating a very satisfying soundfield. During quieter scenes, minor discrete effects are employed, like the rustling of leaves in the distance or the echo of voices inside a cave, maintaining a nicely immersive aural experience.
The one area of complaint keeping this track from a perfect score is sadly in the subtitles. It's enough of a challenge trying to enjoy the 3D video and read what the actors are saying, so why have those subtitles jump all over the screen. They're at the bottom of the frame one instant, then move all the right or left and suddenly appear across the top. It's not only distracting but also rather annoying. To make matters worse, the only available option is subtitles for the hearing impaired, meaning captions in brackets describing miscellaneous sounds which add to the confusion. If not for this constant distraction, the high-rez track would be awesome.
Supplemental material can only be found on the second disc.
Though lacking a bit of focus and oversaturating the narrative with plot and characters, 'Flying Swords of Dragon Gate' nonetheless wins point on its technical achievements and merits. Starring Jet Li, this loose remake and pseudo-sequel entertains with its visual mastery and excellent use of 3D photography, bringing the classic wuxia genre to 21st Century audiences. The film debuts on Blu-ray with a fantastic 3D presentation and near-reference lossless audio. Supplements are largely unimpressive, but the overall package is worth the asking price for 3D enthusiasts.