The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Long men fei jia)

China (2011) Dir. Tsui Hark

During the Ming Dynasty corrupt eunuchs running the West and East Bureaus are under attack from rogue warrior Zhao Huai’an (Jet Li) and his two companions. After he takes out the West Bureau’s Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu), the East Bureau’s master Yu Huatian (Aloys Chen) dispatches his soldiers to hunt down Zhao. Elsewhere a pregnant palace maid Su Huirong (Mavis Fan) is on the run for getting pregnant against the orders of Royal Concubine Wan (Zhang Xinyu) but runs into trouble with Yu’s soldiers. She is rescued by a skilled masked fighter who gives the name Zhao Huai’an after kicking some butt.

However, this Zhao Huai’an is a mysterious female Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), who takes Su under her wing. When a huge sandstorm is approaching the desert the two women seek refuge at the dangerous Dragon Gate Inn, which also becomes a haven for Yu’s soldiers, some Mongol warriors lead by Princess Buludu (Lunmei Kwai) and a group of bandits headed by tomboy Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and Yu Huatian-lookalike Wind Blade (Aloys Chen), forcing Su and Ling to hide underground.

This re-imagining of 1966’s Dragon Gate Inn – the 1992 remake of which director Tsui Hark produced entitled New Dragon Gate Inn – not only reunites him with Jet Li after a decade plus but also sees the wire fu master try his hand at 3D. Donnie Yen turned down the role of Zhao Huai’an due to his policy of not doing remakes of prior films (he was in the 1992 version) which saw Jet Li once again defy his retirement from wu xia movies, apparently encouraged by the possibilities of 3D enhancing the action. This review is based on a 2D DVD version and like most 3D films – about which this has been highly praised, using the people behind Avatar – it doesn’t really add much at all to the action, although it has been sued sparingly and thus is not too distracting.

Things become a little convoluted as the cast list grows exponentially over the course of the film, with the various machinations of the multiple factions meaning there is a lot to follow. The titular inn is not just the setting for the second half of the film but also comes with its own little mystery – long ago the female owner of the inn burnt the original to the ground and disappeared. Now the inn has become a “Black Inn” where violence rules and human flesh is often on the menu – normally the losers of the fights.

At the Inn alliances are eventually formed between the Mongols and Gu’s bandits upon Zhou’s arrival which leads to the discovery of Ling’s underground lair and some long standing revelations to come out in the open. Meanwhile Wind Blade is using his resemblance to Yu Huatian to trick his solders into revealing their plans to him.

That sounds a little glib and you need to watch it to fully understand it, but with wu xia films the action is the nominal selling point and Tsui Hark, true to form, doesn’t scrimp on that. Almost every one of the key players gets to show their fighting stuff and to be fair make a good fist of it, even if they are heavily assisted by wires and CGI while Jet Li, whose fighting here is limited swordplay, is merely subject to some supporting effects during his impressive punch ups.

In traditional Hark fashion, the set ups for these scraps is often quite outrageous and the fighters are able to defy gravity both in delivering offence and receiving a blow. The climatic fight between good and evil (no spoilers here) involves scaling a rickety wooden staircase fashioned from a collapsed trap with razor sharp wire threaded among it, claiming at least two CGI victims in its gory web. Even with the dated practices likely to be open to mockery by those weaned on modern efforts, the fights scenes here are a huge fun to watch.

Despite being all over the promotional materials, Jet Li is only present for around a third of the film. In his absence the rest of the ensemble cast are given the job of carrying the film which they do admirably. While Jet’s Zhou is a slightly detached and emotionless character, Zhou Xun’s initial calculated stoicism as Ling Yanqiu hides her true character, one driven by emotion. Xun also equips herself extremely well in the fight scenes, creating a believable strong female lead (who is originally mistaken for a man).

Two other notable performances are Lunmei Kwai as the Mongol Buludu, showing what a versatile and adaptable actress she is. Her image is that of a deranged, feral, tattooed tribal princess with the most unnerving stare yet somehow Kwai manages to make this warrior woman quite sexy with her body movements. With arguably the roughest job here is Aloys Chen, dividing his time between being the evil, telekinetic Yu Huatian and the likeable almost dippy Wind Blade, never missing a beat and allowing for no inadvertent overlap between the two.

Tsui Hark has returned to the genre in which he made his name and delivered a typical but hugely enjoyable slice of wu xia fantasy action in The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. A popcorn action flick as they should be made!