His 2000 Time and Tide (guns 'n' gangsters in modern-day Hong Kong) and 2007 Kurosawa-inspired Seven Swords were both excellent but under seen; Phantom Flame had a brief Bay Area run last year. Though it's already a blockbuster in China, Flying Swords' local run is limited, touching down only in Emeryville and Santa Clara.
Just to put this in perspective, in 2000, Ang Lee picked up four Oscars for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which layered an art-house patina over gravity-defying fight scenes — "wire fu" — the novelty of which astonished only viewers who'd never seen an episode of Kung Fu Theatre. (Crouching Tiger is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever released in America.) Wire fu is now a common component in mainstream action movies — maybe even a cliché at this point — but nobody uses it more effectively than Tsui, especially when paired with Jet Li.
"I missed him when he went to Hollywood, so I was waiting for the moment when he could come back to our country, our industry, and do movies like Flying Swords with me," Tsui says, noting that Flying Swords marked a new kind of collaboration for the duo. "I think he became more mature, and also learned so much over the years making movies in different places. I'm expecting to work with him again, hopefully soon."
The nimble Li (last seen wearily assuring Dolph Lundgren's character that "you will find another minority" to make fun of, before excusing himself in act one of The Expendables 2) stars in Flying Swords as Zhao Huai'an, crusading fly in the ointment of powerful eunuchs who've injected mass corruption into Ming Dynasty-era China. Chief among them is Eunuch Yu (Chen Kun), a preening, eyeliner'd villain intent on capturing both Zhao and a pregnant maid (Mavis Fan) who's escaped from palace clutches. The cast expands to include a taciturn woman in disguise (Zhou Xun, as butched up here as her Painted Skin: The Resurrection co-star Chen is camp-ified) and multiple ne'er-do-wells (sinister henchmen, heavy-drinking tribal warriors, a goofy rebel who bears a strange resemblance to Eunuch Yu), all of whom descend upon Dragon Gate Inn as the menacing "flying swirl dragon" looms on the horizon.
Alliances form (and are betrayed), schemes are launched (and botched), and the fight scenes — acrobatic and dynamic, with airborne tables, snapping chains, razor-sharp wires, and clashing swords — are mind- and eardrum-blowing. Through it all, Tsui's trademark melding of classic story and fantastic special effects achieves innovative heights.
"I think audiences are always looking for new experiences in the theater," Tsui says, who includes himself in that number. "The action genre was always something I watched as a kid. When I became a director, I was making movies for someone like me, [a viewer] who would really look for something challenging and to experience different things on the screen."
THE FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE opens Fri/31 at the Bay Street 16 in Emeryville and the Mercado 20 in Santa Clara.