"The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" and How the Hong Kong/Chinese Film Industry Has Changed

Posted 10:59 PM February 2nd, 2012 by Senh Duong

I look forward to every Jet Li movie. When I read that he's reuniting with Tsui Hark for "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," this turned into must-see status. You see, Hark directed Li in the first three "Once Upon a Time in China" movies that turned him into a superstar in Asia.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

They were rumored to have a falling-out after the third film and never worked together again until "Dragon Gate." Officially, they attributed their hiatus to scheduling conflicts and contract negotiations. Sure.

I'm glad they were able to settle their differences because "Dragon Gate" is a ground-breaking film. It's the first Chinese movie to be released in 3D and according to some of the reviews, its usage during fight scenes is pretty innovative. With $84.4M so far, it's also by far the highest-grossing martial arts epic at the Chinese box office. Although "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" grossed over $100M in the U.S., it was't nearly as successful in Asia.

Production values are solid across the board with its $37M budget, $12M of which went to Li. One of the positive things to come out of Hark’s experience in Hollywood where he made not one, but two Van Damme movies - "Double Team" and "Knock Off" - was that he learned how to use Hollywood-style special effects. (I saw both of those duds in theaters.)

The effects in “Dragon Gate” are light years ahead of those that he used in 1993's "Green Snake." To create the half human, half snake characters for "Snake," he just had Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong wore snake-shaped tails made of what looked like clothe. The tails also looked kinda hallow. Hark's production team didn't even bother to fill them, it seems, because doing so would had probably restricted their movements. "Jurassic Park" was released shortly before it in Hong Kong. Yeah, ouch. Sure, "Snake" was a beautiful film, but the inability to make the central characters appear in their snake form even half-convincingly took me out of the fantasy world Hark created.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

That's a limitation the Hong Kong film industry had in the early 90's (and prior). The market was just not big enough for the industry to be able to afford Hollywood-caliber effects work. A film grossing a couple million back then is considered a hit, even in China. Because of that, the budgets for Hong Kong films then to be Just a few million. Even if filmmakers can spend their entire budget on special effects, they still can't buy much with that. The average Hollywood film cost about $35M back then.

Fast forward to the present time, and although the box office in Hong Kong has gotten worst, it has exploded in China. In 2011, it surpassed India to become the third largest movie market in the world, behind the U.S. and Japan. In a few years, it’s projected to pass by Japan.

I'm seeing movies in China grossing $20M-30M with more regularity in recent years. Every Jet Li martial arts epic can fetch $30M at the Chinese box office; Donnie Yen, $25M. Ditto for big-time directors like Zhang Yimou, John Woo, and Tsui Hark. In each of the last couple years, there have been at least two films grossing in $70-100M range. That’s pretty good. With a bigger market, films can make more money and accommodate bigger budgets, which can buy better effects work.

Special effects will push martial arts epics and Chinese fantasies into a new direction, allowing filmmakers to use a tool that they couldn’t afford before - kinda like how it has lead to the explosion of comic book films in the U.S. Filmmakers can finally render these fantastical worlds onto the big screen.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

And that’s what Tsui Hark has done with “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.” The production design resembles “Seven Swords,” but don’t fret, it has none of the silliness (i.e. a horse named Joy Luck and the many love triangles). It’s a beautifully designed world, but not as pristine and colorful as a Zhang Yimou film. The stars of the film handle a variety of cool weapons. Each lead character in the film exudes coolness. The villains and heroes are badasses. The look and feel of the film definitely takes one back to the wuxia classics of the late eighties and early nineties.

The fight choreography is similar to “The Swordsman II,” which was written and produced by Hark and also starred Li. There are lots of quick and interesting sword fights, most of which are supplemented with computer generated weapons. Don’t go looking for “Once Upon a Time in China” though because there are no hand-to-hand duels. In spite of that, there are plenty of action and each of them are exciting and entertaining.

The version I saw was a lean and mean 93 minutes. There’s just enough dialogue to set up the story and nothing more, which is great because it doesn’t allow Hark to put in any silly subplots and gags.

I got sucked into this world, and I just take it in, including a scene where two people are fighting in the eye of a sand tornado. The thought of it might sound ridiculous, but not while I was watching it.

I hope this gets a release here in the States, especially in IMAX 3D theaters. I think it can do pretty well here. The film has lots of action, cool characters, and great visuals. If Jet Li can get people to read subtitles for "Hero" and "Fearless," he can get them to do the same for "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate." Besides, I really want to see this in 3D.

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