Movie review: Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in IMAX 3D

The plot description is impossible to read on paper. The 3D is flawed at times and I’m not sure how it will look on a full-on IMAX screen. But goddamn. I was blown away in the screening room and, for me, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a perfect movie.

In an age of bloated and mostly boring historical epics coming out of China, Tsui Hark’s sorta-sequel to 1992′s New Dragon Gate Inn not only recalls but one-ups the brilliant, freewheeling, and mind-blowing early ’90s when the Hong Kong director resuscitated dead genres (including wuxia flicks), blew up careers (such as Jet Li’s), and entertained the shit out of students of cinema, film freaks, and middle-of-the-road Chinese audiences (I’m all of the above). With no time wasted with setup or distracting twists, the emphasis is squarely on parading and colliding extremely charismatic badasses who are supremely gifted at gravity-defying martial arts and, well, badassery.

It’s rewarding to see Tsui reunite with subdued-but-lethal partner Jet Li (Once Upon a Time In China 1-4, Swordsman II), but also telling that the always-evolving director incorporates Zhou Xun and Kwai Lun Mei from his newer work (All About Women) as well. Zhou succeeds not only as an action hero but as a foil to Li’s stoic presence. Kwai may have the juiciest role of all as a tattooed, lusty Tartar princess–perhaps even better than Chen Kun’s double roles as the supremely evil and powerful eunuch and the humorously lacking hero who is tasked with impersonating him. And the appearance of OG Shaw Brothers star star Gordon Liu is not only cool but provides context to Hark’s newest work as a legit addition to the martial arts movie canon.

Swords do indeed fly and so do deadly chunks of tile, chains, throwing stars, daggers, and a variety of fists and no-shadow kicks as each group arrives at the remote inn where treasure will be unearthed during an impending giant sandstorm. For all the coinciding and overlapping plots, the movie’s two hours are shockingly tight with no filler. And while Hark seems recharged by re-learning and applying his craft to 3D storytelling, many of his trademark themes stay true: extremely strong women characters, gender bending, mistaken identity, popular unrest, and who really runs China.

The special effects can be rough but it is beyond awesome to see the timelessly beautiful and ugly heroes of the jianghu duking it out amidst flying logs, bloody wires, and a whirlwind of sand. And it’s not like Tsui Hark ever tried to fool audiences with wirework, cg, or animation. 3D is simply the latest avenue for a master filmmaker to tell an epic, mind-blowing, and Chinese story, and he succeeds with Flying Swords.

Watch the trailer here, then look up the nearest IMAX 3D screen near you. Tsui Hark has reclaimed his godhead status from the mid ’90s, and it’s a gift that we in the U.S. actually get to see it in theaters starting on August 31.