Review: The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate


I’ve loved Hong Kong movies ever since 1996 when Rumble in the Bronx introduced me to their strange take on a New York gang revenge movie. After I burned through every Jackie Chan movie, it was on to Jet Li, whose Once Upon a Time in China led me to Tsui Hark. I’m still glad to get to see any Hong Kong movie in a theater, and this one is in Imax and 3D.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is about a badass general, Zhao (Jet Li), who’s good at defeating evil despots with massive armies at their disposal. He rescues a pregnant servant (Mavis Chan) from the evil Eunuch Yu (Kun Chen), which in wuxia history should not surprise you that a Eunuch is a formidable combatant. Eventually a third clan gets involved as an uneasy ally to Zhao, as they quest through the rubble of Dragon Gate to defeat the evil kingdom’s army.

The film lives up to the title as the swords do fly. The battles make great use of the locations, with some real martial arts and some visual effects. Elaborate scenarios incorporate a boat’s sail, giant logs, ladders and tables. It is mostly swordplay. I would have liked to see a little more kicking, but it’s a good sword movie.

These are modern riffs on classic wirework moves. Now they don’t just hover, Zhao flies from cliffs or suspend himself on chains. The ladders and tables are all CGI, but it’s a riff on something they used to do for real, so I can appreciate it. It just looks like CGI. Every time a blurry humanoid flips and twirls, there’s no illusion that it’s a person.

My favorite Tsui Hark movies were always his practical ones. The Once Upon a Time in Chinas used real wirework, and probably took a cost prohibitive amount of time to stage. Time and Tide is just hardcore, and of course staging fights and Coke machines in outrageous locations in Double Team. But Tsui loves his effects. From Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain to Zu Warriors and Detective Dee, he always overdid the effects and they’re not as impressive as he may think.

There are some cool 3D effects. A few swords do poke you in the face, but the coolest 3D effect is a bandana blowing in the wind. There’s one really weird cut after the climax. You’ll notice. It’s one of those jarring things that they often just leave in in Hong Kong. That’s why I love it. And it’s still not shot in sync. All the Chinese dialogue is dubbed over in post.

In Imax 3D, the subtitles were really too much. You have to adjust your eyes to read the text, then readjust to see the picture, and there’s too much going on to make all those adjustments. I’ve seen subtitled 3D before, including Sex and Zen 3D last year. It only bothered me with the levels between the words and the picture in Dragon Gate, although it’s cool when characters reach past the subtitles occasionally.

It did become a little difficult for me to keep up with the story. There are so many factions it can be hard to keep the characters straight. Zhao has a lot of men in black. By the time the third faction came in it got really complicated, but one of them has facial tattoos so I definitely recognized her. A lot of that is probably lost in translation, and you’d think 15 years of watching these movies would help me, but it’s just one of things I love, getting a little lost but enjoying the themes and spectacle.

This is a recommend. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has a one week limited run in Imax theaters and you should absolutely take the chance to see a Hong Kong action movie on a bigger than big screen, with 3D on the side. It’s not the next Hard Boiled or Iron Monkey but they didn’t shoot those in Imax 3D. My critique is of the film in context of the genre, but the experience overall is inarguably worthwhile.