Here's some of the whiplash that the excellent sword-on-a-wire martial arts film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate might cause: in imperial China, it starts with a trio of killers hacking away at the abusive and cruel bureaucratic class of eunuchs, moves on to an identity stealing swordswoman protecting a pregnant escapee from the imperial palace, and then suddenly becomes a violent treasure hunt at a border crossing, bringing together barbarians, razor wire, unstoppable blades, and star Jet Li's fists.
If none of this sounds like something you're into, then we can't be friends, but for everyone else, read on about one of the most entertaining movies of the last year.
Jet Li plays Zhao, a former imperial general turned eunuch slayer joined by his two comrades (don't worry about their names, they won't be around for long) in killing the corrupt officials who have taken over the eastern half of the kingdom. And having separated one official's head from his body, they're working their way west on a collision course with Yu Hua Tian (Kun Chen), a cold-hearted eunuch with powerful kung-fu who secretly serves the empress. She wants to make sure that there are no pesky stray offspring out there from the frisky emperor (or even rumors of the same), so it's Yu's job to remove or kill any of the serving girls who might be unfortunate enough to get in the family way in the palace walls.
That's where the impersonator Zhao (Xun Zhou) comes in, a female sword fighter almost as talented as her male counterpart and a completely unconvincing man. Waiting at a river crossing, she witnesses one of the palace maids about to be captured by imperial guards. By the way, their method to ensure that none of the women at the crossing are pregnant: a swift punch to the gut. Female Zhao won't stand for this and before she knows it, she's fleeing north with the escapee maiden to the border at Dragon Gate, where the imperial forces are also headed along with a group of surly barbarians led by a tough and apparently smelly tribal princess (Lunmei Kwai, who also co-starred with Li in the heartbreaking drama Ocean Heaven).
Between this and 2010's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, director Tsui Hark is on a role, with yet another film that digs into crosses, double-crosses, and triple crosses while still working as violently fun martial arts movies. Both smart and funny, it might not reach the levels of delirious brutality of his 90's work like Swordsman or Once Upon A Time In China, but it's much better than most.
At this point, we'll all have to resign ourselves to the heavily CG-assisted wire work kung-fu (it's like a cheat of a cheat) and while it breaks my heart to see Jet Li's natural, fast and fluid style undercut by the weightlessness of CG wire-fu, Hark does know how to stage crazy-looking action scenes--typically by throwing in as many combatants and swords, knives, and arrows as possible.
And how's the 3D? Completely gimmicky and cheap-looking and perfect for this movie. Actually, the CG/3D combination is responsible early in the movie for one of my favorite transitions as a severed head floats in space, gets caught in a box, and is left hanging from a post. Hark was going for art here: the art of the badass and the relentlessly, impossibly improbable and fun.
Presentation and Special Features
Visually, Vivendi Entertainment's disc is sharp if a little too shiny. It's that weird halfway point between shot-on-digital and film look that some Chinese and Hong Kong exports have these days, and there's really nothing for it.
As for sound options, there's a badly-synced, tinny Mandarin 5.1 DTS HD track which sounds a little sharp at times as well as an English 2.0 Dolby Digital track. I'm guessing we simply got a Region A version of the Chinese disc.
The two-disc set includes the 3D version of the movie on one Blu-ray and the 2D version on a second Blu-ray with the special features. Those include the two-part "The Making of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" (04:48/09:16, both standard def); Interviews with the cast and filmmakers (20:21), one of those curious docs where none of the performers are named while they speak; a Behind the Scenes doc which features short video clips of the actors performing and rehearsing without narration or commentary; finally, the film's English-narrated trailer rounds out the package (02:30).
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is available on DVD and Blu-ray now from Vvendi Entertainment.