FILM The wuxia film is as integral to China's cinema as the Western is to America's — though the tradition of the "martial hero" in literature and other art forms dates back well before Clint Eastwood ever donned a serape. Still, the two genres have some notable similarities, a fact acknowledged by Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which adopts "the good, the bad, and the ugly" as a tagline in the splashy trailer for its American release.
Hardcore fans of flying swordsmen and their ilk will recognize the (ill-) fated locale of the title, previously seen in the 1962 King Hu classic Dragon Gate Inn and the 1992 Tsui-produced New Dragon Gate Inn. But don't call Flying Swords a remake — it's more fanboy tribute writ large.
"I hate to remake something when somebody already did a good job on it," Tsui says from Hong Kong, where he's filming his next project. "When I was a kid, Dragon Gate Inn was one of my favorite movies. When I started my career, I was lucky to collaborate with King Hu on [1990's] The Swordsman. But during the preparation for The Swordsman, I spent so much time talking to him about Dragon Gate Inn, how he came up with the story and how he designed his shots."
Pretty soon, I had the idea of writing a story [inspired by questions] that I saw as not having been answered by Dragon Gate Inn. He was laughing and said, if those are things that you feel like you can answer, that could be New Dragon Gate Inn. That film became a classic in the market in China. I wanted Flying Swords to be a continuation of the old story, with new characters: something you're familiar with, but with a lot of new elements and people. I would say Flying Swords is a continuation. It's not a remake or a part two."
Dragon Gate Inn may be a familiar milieu, but Flying Swords marks the first time the dusty desert way station has been rendered in 3D IMAX. The climactic battle — between a ragtag gang of outlaws led by a mysterious wanderer, and power-mad government officials — goes down in an epic, churning sandstorm.
"It was something I wanted to try: 3D and IMAX at the same time," Tsui says. "In my last film, [Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame], the investor wanted to make it into IMAX," he remembers. But he didn't want to blow up the film to IMAX size in post-production, so he held off until Flying Swords came along.
Likewise, he became interested in 3D while working on Phantom Flame. "I was looking around for the people who could tell me how to shoot a 3D movie. I [started] testing 3D with my cameraman and special effects people. When we saw Avatar, which was quite a cool experience, we invited their team to come give us advice [on Flying Swords]."
He learned so much while making Flying Swords, Tsui says, "I think it could be quite a good beginning for me to do something more fantastic, more crazy, next."
Tsui, who also penned Flying Swords' screenplay, is by now an expert in the fantastic and crazy. He rocketed to infamy with 1983's Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, a cult hit in America for its outrageously enjoyable combination of martial arts and special FX wizardry. Tsui, who honed his craft at UT Austin in the mid-1970s, has made nearly a film a year, and sometimes multiple films per year, for the past three decades. Some haven't made it stateside, but the ones that have include the Jet Li-starring Once Upon a Time in China series; Jackie Chan's Twin Dragons (1992); and Jean Claude Van Damme's best (I guess) efforts, 1997's Double Team (the one with Dennis Rodman) and 1998's Knock Off (the one with Rob Schneider).