A free movie screening in Times Square is as much of a curse as it is a blessing. The audience is usually there because “free movie” and to see how much they can talk during the show, and Monday’s screening of Tsui Hark’s 3-D, Imax Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was no exception. Packed to the rafters, the second the subtitles appeared the theater erupted into groans, catcalls, and “What the fuck”s. This clearly wasn’t a big crowd of readers. But 10 minutes into the movie the guy behind me stopped talking. 20 minutes in and you could hear a popcorn bag rattle. Because Tsui Hark’s latest movie is completely and totally batshit crazy, the kind of batshit crazy that even the most hardened crowd of Times Square freeloaders has to respect: this is top quality, uncut, grade-A gonzo insanity of the highest order.
Crazy as a knee to the face!
A continuation of Tsui Hark’s 1992 Dragon Inn, this movie is a time machine that makes it 1992 all over again. The music is a direct continuation of his original Dragon Inn score with its face-shredding blasts of souna and Chinese opera music, padded out with some big blasting synthesizer chords. The men all wear thick layers of make-up, the wig lines are sometimes visible, Jet Li’s bad skin is in full effect, plot lines and characters are picked up and discarded with all the ceremony of a hyperactive monkey looking for a banana, and the special effects are sometimes laughably fake. But it’s also 1992 in all the good ways, too. The action is a nonstop waterfall of mayhem, every five minutes something brand new is happening, the characters are carved onto the screen with bold strokes of the sword, and the pure energy, invention, and imagination on display feels like getting struck by lightning in your seat, over and over again.
A lot of movies have one or two ideas and they hoard them like Scrooge. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has so many ideas flying off the screen from start to finish that you feel like a starving man unleashed on a Las Vegas buffet. There’s too much happening, but as far as Tsui Hark is concerned too much is never enough. So take a deep breath, and plunge into the plot.
Zhao Huai’an (Jet Li) is a swordsman who’s come to take out the trash in the East and West Bureaus, which are evil enforcement and torture one-stop shopping solutions for the Ming Emperor run by competing, corrupt officials. Zhao enthusiastically decapitates a West Bureau eunuch (played by action legend Gordon Liu) which brings the super-powerful eunuch Yu Hutian (Aloys Chen), head of the East Bureau and a man given to pleated skirts, onto the scene to show the West Bureau men how to catch a criminal like Zhao.
Aloys Chen, looking fancy.
But what’s a Tsui Hark movie with one plotline? Palace maid Su is pregnant and on the run because Yu has slated her for sudden death since people might whisper that the Emperor is her baby daddy. She’s rescued at the last minute by another swordsman called Zhao, this time played by Chinese super-actress Zhou Xun. This lethal swordswoman goes masked, disguises herself as a man, and has stolen Zhao’s name to drive the Ming officials kuh-razy. She takes the preggers palace maid under her protection and vows to smuggle her out of the country. But a once-in-every-60-years “black sandstorm” forces her to take refuge at Dragon Inn, a den of iniquity with human flesh on the menu and a warren of secret tunnels underground.
Zhou Xun, doing her Jet Li impression.
Also holed up at the inn are: an undercover East Bureau kill squad; a barbarian princess with a razor sharp hula hoop (Gwei Lun-mei) and her band of brutal barbarians; a team of bandits with a secret agenda led by swordswoman, Li Yuchun, and her ex-boyfriend, the goofy and good-looking Wind Blade (Aloys Chen again); and the shady staff of Dragon Inn. Wind Blade also happens to be an identical look-a-like for the head of the East Bureau who is riding towards the Inn post haste to decapitate as many of these undesireables as possible. And don’t forget Jet Li, who also has a role in all of this. Throw in a spaghetti-pile of double and triple crosses, several mistaken identities, multiple assassination attempts, a hunt for a buried city made of gold, and you’ve got a Tsui Hark movie right out of the 90′s.
Li Yuchun, slicing off faces.
In his hands, all these plotlines feel as clear as a cloudless sky on a sunny day and as long as his hands are moving and he’s keeping the characters in the air you never once see him sweat. That’s not to say all of it works. The other aspect of Tsui Hark’s early 90′s style is in full effect, too: sloppiness. His cup runneth over and doth spill all over the table. Jet Li is stiff and has zero onscreen chemistry with his leading lady, several key moments pass by in a blur of confusing editing, important plot points and character deaths are often ignored or left behind by the camera, there’s an out-of-nowhere betrayal that feels severely unmotivated, and there was one moment during the climax when Tsui Hark either got bored or ran out of money and the camera suddenly cut away to hours later, causing the audience to burst into laughter.
“Waitaminute – what just happened?”
But the parts are far more than the sum of the whole. There are more sword-slinging warrior women in this movie than every other summer blockbuster put together. Zhou Xun is a fantastic inheritor of Brigitte Lin’s original role, all nobility and badassery. Li Yuchun, the 2005 winner of China’s version of American Idol (known as Super Girls) is all straight-ahead anger and impatience, and Gwei Lun-mei, usually known for romantic comedies, received multiple “Best Supporting Actress” nominations for her role as the bawdy, badass barbarian princess with hair extensions, facial tattoos, and orange make-up, and she deserved every one of them. This is one of those movies that makes it clear that if there’s one thing Tsui Hark knows it’s how to direct women.
It’s a Tsui Hark movie. Which means it’s full of womanly men…
…and manly women.
But it’s also a movie that makes something else clear: Tsui Hark should direct nothing but 3-D Imax movies from here on out. Movies like Avatar and Prometheus use 3-D to give the screen a feeling of depth, and their directors talk on and on about how they don’t want to use “cheap tricks” with 3-D. Enter Tsui Hark, the man who never met a cheap trick he couldn’t elevate to high art. As he says in a recent interview:
“I know that a lot of people are pretty much against things flying out of the screen, but I was really tempted to do that all the time. I think when I was a kid, I really enjoyed seeing things flying off the screen…I’m not controlling myself in the movie. I tried to generate a more exciting kind of shot with things flying out so people can reach it.”
And things are constantly flying off the screen in Flying Swords. Actually, everything is flying off the screen, and the only thing it lacks is a man with a pool cue poking it at your eyes. From the opening vertiginous swoop through a shipyard, to the final battle full of razor-sharp wires, thrown knives, shattering swords, storms of arrows, fluttering scarves, blasting billows of sand, and flying swordsmen (and women, mostly women) there isn’t a moment’s rest, and that’s a good thing. Tsui’s pure enthusiasm for the 3-D format is infectious, but it’s also smart. His dialogue and dramatic scenes are shot with a moving camera on a crane that constantly prowls around the actors, letting the scenery slip between the lens and the talk. But the second the action kicks in, he locks down the camera and allows the actors and their weapons to move through the space, almost as if the frame was a stage and they’re passing through it. Momentum is established through editing, and the 3-D fights under stages, inside scaffolding, in narrow canyons, and in the inn feel like the best use of 3-D in a movie yet.
Digital effects are everywhere, but they don’t feel like a cheat. In fact, their very obviousness is part of the charm, just as they were in some of his early films. The fight inside a tornado by two swordsmen chained to each other won’t convince you that it’s real, but it is viscerally exciting and before you can start picking on it, it’s already in the rear view mirror and Tsui’s on to something else. It reminds you of the climax of his 1983 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, a blatant bit of optical effects fakery that still thrilled with its visual imagination. One part Zu and one part early, Thomas Edison-era primitivist cinema, to criticize these digital battles for looking fake would be like going to a sushi restaurant and complaining that the fish is undercooked. It’s the intensity of the scenes and their stylization that’s important, not their reality.
And this is what makes Tsui Hark one of the world’s five or six best directors. He’s not the best dramatist, and not always the best writer, certainly not the best illusionist, but it’s his white-hot passion for filmmaking, his joy in the medium, and his commitment to doing new things at all costs. Tsui Hark remembers what thrilled him in the theater when he was a boy, he remembers the stories and shots that made his eyes go wide. He’s trying to replicate that experience for the rest of us, and if every movie isn’t perfect (and this one certainly isn’t) they are wild, wild rides that offer more fun per square inch than all the rest of what’s in the multiplex today. Just ask that free audience in Times Square on Monday night. They may have been moaning and groaning when Flying Swords of Dragon Gate started, but they were cheering when it ended.