Friday, 2 October 2015

Film Review - 'Flying Swords of Dragon Gate'

Fans of film trivia might be interested to know that this 2011 wuxia film, direct by Tsui Hark, is actually a loosely connected sequel to the 1992 film, New Dragon Gate Inn, which Tsui Hark produced and wrote. The 1992 film was, in turn, a remake of of the 1966 Taiwanese wuxia film, Dragon Gate Inn. What does any of that mean for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate? Well, not much, admittedly. While the events of the 1992 film are referenced, the story told here is one that is largely self-contained.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a film which features all of the classic hall-marks of the wuxia genre. Placing itself in the historical context of the Ming dynasty, the film offers up a tale of tragedy, epic drama, and violence. And, of course, of supernaturally skilled warriors engaging in epic duels.

Here, we have the oppressive cruelty of the 'East Bureau' and the 'West Bureau' - government factions led by imperial eunuchs working to consolidate their own power. We have the leader of a band of freedom fighters (played by Jet Li), who sees little difference between the two factions, and who is quite willing to target both. There is a former maid (Mavis Fan), who is now pregnant with what is believed to be the current Emperor's child, and who is currently on the run - fleeing soldiers sent after her by the Emperor's current chief concubine. We have the former love interest of Jet Li's freedom fighter (Xun Zhou) - a skilled warrior in her own right who, for reasons of her own, currently travelled posing as a man. There are dangerous bandits, cashing rumours of buried treasure in the ruins of an ancient city.

For one reason or another, all of these groups find themselves stuck together in an inn at an isolated desert outpost known as Dragon Gate, as a powerful sand-storm approaches. So, with so many players in this dangerous game, and so many conflicting loyalties, we have a situation where no one can be entirely sure of who they can trust.

It really is a great set-up for a tense and exciting action film. Or, at least, it should be.

Unfortunately, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is actually a bit of a mess. For a start, there is very little time spent on actually providing any of the film's sizable cast with proper introductions, or on given the audience time to get to know any of them. Because of this, scenes of conflict and tension often lack the weight that they are clearly supposed to have - we simply don't have a strong enough grasp on who any of these people are, or why they are fighting, to feel genuinely invested in either them or their, often inevitably bloody, fate. The film's plot is also often incredibly difficult to follow. It's a tangled web of half-explored character motivations, poorly explained relationships, and out-of-nowhere revelations.

Worse still, given the film's genre, the various action sequences on display often just aren't all that impressive. There is a clear over-reliance on CGI in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate - and, more often than not, it seems to be CGI of dubious quality. Any scene involving characters engaging in the impossible leaps typical of wuxia films, for example, seem to be the product of CGI rather than the traditional wire-work - and, their movements during these portions of the film's fight-scenes just seem unnatural in a way that's both conspicuous and distracting. There are also many occasions where objects on screen are clearly the product of CGI, rather than being physical props - blades flying toward the screen, for example, or the massive wooden logs that feature during the film's opening action sequence. Here, too, the quality that you would want is sadly lacking - with textures that simply seem unnatural, and look more like something out of a video-game, rather than a film.

It's quite possible that the emphasis I'm putting on the film's use of CGI, here, may seem like nit-picking. And, I suppose it is, to an extent. But, bad CGI has been a pet peeve of mine pretty much since CGI in film became common - so, I'm well aware of the fact that it may simply before me more than it would other people. Whether right or wrong, CGI has earned a reputation as the tool of choice for lazy film-makers - to such an extent that I have always found bad CGI to be a much more unforgivable film-making sin than shoddy sets, or cheap costumes.

It's also possible that some of the film's special effects problems are a result of the film being originally shot entirely in 3D - with the intent that it would be screened that way. Now, while I have to admit that I simply have no idea how impressive Flying Swords of Dragon Gate would be in 3D, watching the result of their efforts in 2D is just something else about this film that I found distracting. There were simply too many instances where the film-makers went for what I am forced to think of as the '3D money-shot' - scenes in which something, whether the blade of a sword or a flailing rope, came hurtling toward the camera in a way which was clearly meant to impress audience members watching in 3D, but which just look a little silly otherwise.

And, the thought that the film being intended to be screened in 3D is what led them to decide on CGI, rather than traditional wuxia film-making techniques, is a little depressing. Honestly, if all of this is the inevitable result of trying to create a 3D wuxia film, then I really wish that they hadn't bothered.

When the CGI isn't getting in the way, though, the film's action sequences are often still very impressive - as you might expect from a film featuring a veteran like Jet Li. The performances given by the film's cast are also fine, for the most part. There are a few different flavors of stoic bad-ass, and a couple of different brands of crazy - but, no one is really given all that much to work with, here. Without proper character development, we really just end up with a film filled with the most basic stereotypes - which can be fine for some cheap entertainment, of course, but it really doesn't make for a particularly memorable film.

But, that's exactly what Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is, in the end - a film that is entertaining enough but which is, in the end, largely forgettable. The film features enough entertaining action sequences to make it worth a couple of hours of your time, if you happen to be a fan of wuxia-style action - but, unfortunately, it doesn't really offer much more than that.

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