If it doesn’t make you seasick, Tsui Hark’s “The Flying Swords of the Dragon Gate” may be the ultimate wuxia movie. A sub-genre of Asian martial-arts movies, these films feature bravura acting — okay, some call it over-the-top — and gravity-defying combat in mid-air.
“Flying Swords” ups the ante by adding in 3D, Imax and an all-star Asian cast including Jet Li. So swords, daggers and all sorts of sharp objects not only fly off the screen at you, they do so in very large sizes.
I must report that some critics felt a little nauseated at a recent press screening. The digital imagery, 3D and Imax combine to make heads swim. The plot only furthers that dizzying effect.
It perhaps would help if one were steeped in the tradition of the Dragon Gate films, going back to the first “Dragon Inn” directed by King Hu in 1967. “Flying Swords” is supposed to be a sequel to Raymond Lee’s “New Dragon Gate” (1992), which Tsui wrote and produced.
Whatever the case, the toys of 3D and Imax give Tsui license to go berserk for two hours with flying things and non-stop action. Subtlety and any human touch also fly out the window, unfortunately.
What you need to know is that the film, written and directed by Tsui, picks up three years after a massive fire consumed the Dragon Gate Inn. Now the lonely desert outpost is back in business and, boy, is it overbooked.
Three rival groups of warriors and assassins all converge on the Inn just before a massive sandstorm is expected. They don’t come for the accommodations: Legend has it that the sandstorm will expose a lost city of gold.
The imperial government is controlled by merciless eunuchs, one of whom, Yu Huatian (Aloys Chen), comes in pursuit of a runaway pregnant concubine Su Huirong (Taiwanese pop singer Mavis Fan). A maverick swordsman, Zhao Huai’an (Li), also drops by with his own band of warriors intent on disrupting the eunuch’s power plays.
Along the way, the fugitive Su has acquired her own bodyguard in the mysterious Ling Yanqui (Zhou Xun). He is in fact a she, who cross-dresses to pose as Zhao for reasons disclosed later at the Inn.
Already ensconced at the desert watering hole is a motley group of Tartars headed by its bandit queen, the exotic Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), and partner in crime Pu Cangzhou, who is a dead-ringer for Yu (and in fact is also played by Chen).
So got that? A cross-dresser, two lookalikes and eventually two star-crossed lovers. Don’t worry, I had to read press notes to figure much of this out but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is so busy in sustained choreographed fights that mixing people up may just be part of Tsui’s game plan.
Like comic-book superheroes in American films, these characters possess otherworldly powers of flight, spinning and knife throwing. They can also fend off thrown objects with their swords, which is the primary weapon here.
The effect of the constant combat ballets is wearying, not only on an audience but even the actors begin to look a little glassy-eyed. For all their physical and verbal duels, Li and Chen never manage to develop a real on-screen rivalry. The same holds true for Li and Zhou as their romantic relationship never sparks.
A climatic duel within a sandstorm tornado is not only silly but poorly animated. For that matter, you are soon aware that in this movie the actors seldom leave the soundstage as they swim through a sea of CGI. This perhaps is an American influence that does the film little good.
A final note: Subtitles are difficult to read, at least in Imax, as they float way down the huge screen, far from where the eyes want to be. You sometimes must decide whether to read the dialogue or watch the action.
I say go with the action. The story never makes much sense anyway.
Opens: August 31, 2012 (Indomina Releasing and Imax 3D)
Production companies: Bona Entertainment Company Limited presents a Film Workshop production
Cast: Jet Li, Zhou Xun, Aloys Chen, Kwai Lun-Mei, Li Yuchun, Gwei Lun, Marvis Fan, Fan Sui Wong
Director/screenwriter: Tsui Hark
Producers: Tsui Hark, Jeffrey Chan, Nansun Shi
Executive producer: Yu Dong
Director of photography: Choi Sung Fai
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Action choreographer: Yuen Bun
Music: Wu Wai Lap
Costume designer: Lai Hsuan-wu
Editor: You Chi Wai
R rating, 122 minutes