Tsui Hark delivers an eccentric wuxia epic which aims to drown the viewer in gravity-defying swordplay.
Going all out to allow viewers to gorge in wild, colourful and eccentric visual thrills, Hong Kong veteran Tsui Hark follows up his delightful (and underseen) 2010 film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame with an off-the-reservation 'wuxia' epic which sees various enclaves of seemingly indestructible assassin come face-to-face at the titular outpost of Dragon Gate in search of a mysterious city of gold. Or something.
With a labyrinthine plot which exists purely to serve Tsui's visual flights of fancy, the film opens with a breathtaking swoop through a Ming dynasty boat yard which bursts off the screen with innovative use of 3D. It then introduces us to Jet Li's straw-hatted swordsman Zhou Huai'an as he thrashes a band of corrupt eunuchs with gravity defying elan. "You've been drinking too much wine of pickled flesh!" he tells a local warlord before insouciantly running him through.
Then just as you're gathering your breath from the first tranche of swordplay, along comes another one, this time on a ship as the fighters pirouette up the rigging and swish their swords at a length of rope which flies out of the screen. A large hunk of exposition follows, where innumerable other characters of all shapes, sizes and genders are introduced, and then it all rounds off with a protracted scuffle in the eye of a hurricane. Alongside the dialogue, the main sounds found in this film is the clash of metal and the 'pfft' of arrows and darts flying through the air.
While this dizzying film presents hundreds of characters on the screen, there is, alas, not a single human being among them. But, then, that's not what this is about. Laden with glossy digital effects work, you can see the rough edges of the computer graphics and a lot of the backdrops look extremely fake. Yet Tsui puts them all to such innovate and quick-fire use, you'd hardly want to complain.
It's been a long time since Tsui delivered a major work.
Bombards and chokes you with expertly choreographed fight scenes. Character and plot? Not so much…
It's fun in the moment, but hardly one for the ages.