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Blu-ray 3D Review: Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate

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Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate is the first wuxia (a type of Chinese martial arts fiction) film to be shot in 3D, and stars Jet Li as a vigilante working against an empire that has turned corrupt. Director and writer Tsui Hark revisits the world of Dragon Inn in this latest iteration of a mystical place where good and evil collide.

The Movie

It’s hard to know how much of Hark’s previous film set in this world, Dragon Inn, you’re supposed to be aware of before watching Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate. I would hope a little, because taken on its own this new movie is a bit of a mess in the story department.

The setup lays out how the controlling empire of eunuchs have turned corrupt and begun to terrorize the land. A renegade warrior by the name of Zhao Gwai’on (Jet Li) is standing up to them and protecting some of the people being persecuted. At the same time, a copycat warrior is also pretending to be Zhao, spreading the seeds of a rebellion. One of the head eunuchs is searching out one of his victims to punish, who has found protection with the copycat Zhao. Their paths all seem to converge at the Dragon Gate Inn, where not only is there a legendary storm approaching, but also is rumored to be the site of some lost gold. And then there are these barbarians hanging out there… Look, it just starts to get a bit complicated.

Basically there are about four stories that are either started and then abandoned, or else merge into something else by the third act. Some characters have doubles that aren’t explained, some characters seem to die but then don’t, and then some characters seem to switch loyalties depending on the whim of the scene. And the weirdest thing is that it’s not totally confusing while you’re watching, but when trying to piece together what happened after the fact, words will fail you. In truth, this movie is almost completely style over substance, but the good news is that style totally wins in a big way, and even makes sense of some things that the story fails with. For example, you have an innate sense of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. In amongst all of that you have a lot of magical fighting. Do you really need more than that out of your martial arts/wuxia movie where everyone is already shunning the laws of gravity and physics? Logic is a bit player here, if we’re honest, as long as at least one hero comes through with some honor still intact.

Video / 3D

In short, this is one of the best 3D video presentations I’ve seen, and is the true calling card of this release. Not only is the extra dimensionality used to full effect, but it’s obvious that the movie was shot by design to take advantage of 3D, and not just as a conversion afterthought. For the most part, it adds amazing depth to each scene, although it does also have some fun with a few pop-out effects. But this extra depth really brings out some of the lush camera work and truly makes this feel like a different experience from the 2D version. Even detail and color seem a bit more defined in 3D, perhaps due to focused placement within the visual layers. One odd downside is that the only subtitle option available on the 3D disc is an English SDH track that adds text details of sound effects in with the dialogue (for the benefit of those who are hearing impaired). It’s a lot of text on screen to juggle if that’s not something you need, and especially in 3D can be a bit much to divert eye focus.

The 2D video is certainly no slouch in the visual department, although it is interesting how much more obvious the computer effects become. Perhaps because in 3D mode these effects elements are generally already separated out from their background, the fact that they don’t seamlessly blend into the surrounding image isn’t as much of a concern, but they are more apparent (and while not bad overall, they’re still not up to Industrial Light & Magic standards). But Hark does a great job of visually orchestrating some very tricky technical scenes, and all things considered, this is a winning video presentation. Colors are simply fantastic – as well as fantastical – with much of the film having a high contrast and almost-HDR sense of surrealism. Detail is quite sharp, so much in fact that it can too easily reveal the not-quite-flawless computer effects.

Audio

The Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track offers mostly good news, with just a touch of bad. For the most part this is a truly outstanding audio mix, delivering rich and powerful sound. The entire sound field is utilized, and especially during 3D viewing works with the visuals to deliver a completely immersive experience. Environment noise is expertly blended in with dialogue and music, and while never competing, it is effectively used to engage all of the speakers in tune with the depicted visuals. The only drawback is that this is all canned, and there is a sterile feel to the track. This extends to the speaking roles, and while some are obviously dubbed, the others are at least ADR’d heavily. No doubt this was needed for the many desert location shots, but it does create an unnatural effect for the audio.

Bonus Material

There are four main bonus items included on the 2D disc (the 3D disc contains only the feature film), which are all variations on the same thing: poorly edited behind-the-scenes interviews and footage. “Making of Flying Sword Of Dragon Gate, Part 1″ (SD, 4:48) primarily focuses on Tsui Hark as a director, with those involved in the film offering some quick interview soundbites regarding his work. “Making of Flying Sword Of Dragon Gate, Part 2″ (SD, 9:16) is probably the best snapshot behind-the-scenes item, offering good on-set peeks as well as more interview moments on the production as a whole.

“Interviews With Cast And Filmmakers” (SD, 20:21) is a jerkily edited hodge-podge of interviews, some of which are raw versions of what was used in the “Making Of…” segments. “Behind The Scenes” (SD, 32:21) is frankly more of the same. A lot more. And finally, the trailer (SD, 2:30) for the film is included.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for something that showcases strong 3D and you have even a remote interest in martial arts or wuxia films, Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate is an easy recommendation, and comes with a largely winning technical presentation, including some truly astounding 3D filming. If you’re looking for cohesive storytelling or are overly picky about being able to detect computer effects in your live action films, you’re bound for at least a little disappointment. The movie can never settle on any one storyline long enough to focus or develop, and is best taken as eye-candy entertainment. Similarly, the movie is really at its best in 3D. While its still enjoyable in its 2D form, that extra layer of dimension and effects beautifully covers over some weak seams. Highly recommended for all 3D setups.

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About David R Perry

  • Dave

    Thanks for the review. I was wondering how the subtitles would look in 3D and it is disappointing to learn they subtitle the sound effects. I am going to rent it on VUDU.

  • http://www.davidrperry.com David R Perry

    I was actually relieved at how easily it was to read the subtitles in 3D. If you’re used to it in general, then the 3D (and with the glasses) honestly didn’t complicate anything.

    You potentially might have better luck on VUDU; the subtitle issue was only on the 3D disc, not the 2D, and may have just been a disc mastering issue (digital version “might” be fine, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the same as the disc version).

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