A scene from FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE, a film by Tsui Hark. Picture courtesy Variance Films. All rights reserved.
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Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011/2012)
Opened: 08/31/2012 Limited
Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Chinese Martial Arts Action/Adventure
Rated: R for for some violence.
As one of the defining stories of the wuxia genre, the saga of the Dragon Gate Inn has already been the source material for two classic martial arts films. Now legendary writer/director/producer Tsui Hark revisits these legends in FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE bringing new characters and ancient conflicts to life through the vivid depth of 3D and the epic scale of the IMAX image.
The film picks up three years after the disappearance of the enigmatic innkeeper Jade and the massive fire that consumed the Inn. A new Dragon Inn has risen from the ashes, staffed by a band of marauders. Masquerading as law-abiding citizens by day, they use the cover of night to continue their true calling as fortune hunters. For legend says that the Dragon Inn is the site of a lost city buried in the desert -- and a treasure that spans dynasties hidden deep within.
As they await a storm strong enough to unearth the hidden fortress, they are surprised by the arrival of a pregnant concubine and her mysterious protector, Ling. They have come seeking the sanctuary of the Inn -- as two factions from the Imperial City close in on them to claim her unborn child. Leading the Imperial Assassins is the merciless Eunuch, Yu who hopes to reclaim the Emperor's child before she can fall into the hands of the righteous General Zhao.
With a career spanning decades and a resume of classic martial arts films, Tsui Hark delivers a whole new level of wonder -- a tale that respects the storytelling of wuxia while using state-of-the-art tools to create a spectacle unlike any you've seen before.
FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE stars Jet Li, Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Li Yuchun, Gwei Lun Mei, Mavis Fan and Fan Siu Wong. The film is written, directed and produced by Tsui Hark in association with Jeffrey Chan, and Nansun Shi. The film was co-produced by Xiaoli Han, Dongming Shi and Wenhong Yang and executive produced by Sanping Han, Li Ruigang, Dong Yu. The film is a presentation of Bona Film Group and Widescreen Media in collaboration with Indomina Releasing.
About the Production
Over the years, the sub-genre of martial arts films know as wuxia has built an immense global audience. With its larger than life heroes and outlandish combat sequences, in many ways it is the precursor to the current wave of superheroes films.
Amongst the standouts of the genre are the two Dragon Gate Inn films. The first, directed by King Hu in 1967 laid the groundwork for the series introducing such recurring motifs as Imperial Eunuchs, Roaming Swordsmen and locations in the remote desert. In 1993, Raymond Lee's Dragon Inn was a standout audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival -- allowing the saga to gain a foothold with audiences in the west. Tsui Hark, who served as a writer, producer and co-director of that film felt there were additional stories to be told within the world of the Dragon Inn -- but in order for the story to transcend the earlier versions it would require a new set of storytelling tools. Despite the challenges of shooting martial arts sequences in three dimensions -- the allure of being able to move freely and feel every hit within a fight was just too great a temptation to pass up.
This new medium forced the filmmakers to relearn their craft; now every nuance had to be considered from the distance between the point of a sword and the comparatively smaller 3D lens -- right down to the reflections off the blade that can cause distortions in the image.
Extensive preparations were made for the shoot as experts in the field of 3D photography were brought in -- including many of the visual effects wizards behind James Cameron's Avatar -- to retrain Hark's camera team. This was seen as a necessity as the director felt this new technology was the best way to bring a dynamic energy to the relatively static setting of the desert and the isolated inn at its border.
"Film has gone through a great many shifts since its birth," says Tsui Hark. "Going from silent to sound, black-and-white to color and now into 3D. This is an inevitable path. Our reality has always been three-dimensional and now that we have the tools to convey that, we are building an audience that yearns for entertainment that portrays reality as they experience it."
Compared to traditionally shot martial arts films -- this necessitated a protracted shooting schedule. While learning the skillset necessary to shoot in 3D, two camera units were initially only able to complete six shots a day -- yet as the shoot wore on, they were eventually able to craft and complete a shot in a little as forty minutes.
"Be it 3D or 8D, I wont let it affect my performance", says actor Chen Kun. "I'm here to be involved in the first Chinese film in IMAX 3D. It's shaping up to be the perfect combination of art and science."
In addition to the technical demands, the film's winter locations were a tremendous challenge for cast and crew. Part of Hark's vision for the film was vast, unclaimed landscapes, requiring multiple units to shoot simultaneously in locations four hours apart. These difficulties were compounded by weather -- with temperatures reaching a decade low of -17 Celsius -- inspiring the crew to use on-set lights to warm their thaw their equipment. For the actors in front of the camera, this was as trying as it was for the crew behind it.
"It was the worst location shooting I've ever endured," says Zhou Xun. "With the sandstorm, we could barely open our eyes, yet we couldn't look blind on camera. The temperature was often in sub-zero and bad for our bodies, especially when we were performing extensive action sequences."
To any fan of wuxia, the action in a Tsui Hark film is as integral to the overall product as plot or character. Accordingly, the director drew his cast from some of the biggest names in Chinese and Taiwanese action cinema. To play the leading role of the swordsmen, Zhao Huaia, the filmmakers were quick to enlist the services of international martial arts legend, Jet Li.
"Our primary weapon in the film is the sword," says Tsui Hark. "The characters personalities should reflect the application of their swords. I believe the sword is the ultimate weapon, with its varying characteristics, speed, impact and movement. And there are few practitioners of martial arts swordplay as skilled or fluid as Jet Li."
For his part the legendary actor was thrilled to hone his skills in a three dimensional format.
"In Asian cinema, we've grown quite sophisticated in our 2D filmmaking," says the actor. "But we also want to make our mark in 3D. In five to ten years, I could see 3D technology being integrated to present a more extensive and sophisticated martial arts world. "
While Tsui Hark was thrilled to reunite with the star of The Legend of the Swordsmen, he is equally quick to praise the skills and tolerance of the rest of his cast.
This film has loads of characters," says the director. "When we try to cover all the actors, sometimes it's hard to adhere to the original shooting schedule. Some cast members didn't get their turns, while others were exhausted in front of the camera. This must be one of their toughest shoots, yet they were all so cooperative."
For their part, Li's co-stars were equally intent on matching the intensity and professionalism of the action icon.
"I often tell myself, 'I'm the best kung-fu artist!'" laughs Chinese star Chen Kun. "Such hypnosis works out fine. Otherwise, you'd look pretty weak in front of Jet Li! Still, I had to do a scene that required me to drop thirty meters and it took a dozen takes to get it right. It was an interesting challenge, but practice makes perfect."
The sheer physicality required in every role left the entire cast exhausted. As a director, Tsui Hark is known for his exacting detail when it comes to movement -- choreographing even the quotidian details of each character as if they were fight moves.
"I remember, in one scene, he wanted me to swing my robe and refuse an offer of wine before sitting," says Zhou Xun. "Such details would add up everyday. Another time he asked me to unload my bag and hat in a 'cool way'. But they were tied so tightly on my clothes; it was not cool at all. So we had to stop and compose a series of effective movements that would inform the character."
As production wore on the exacting sword work would require the use of wirework not just for actors leaps and falls -- but to hold up the heavy blades as fatigue set in. For the cast -- like Taiwanese pop singer, Mavis Fan -- the rigorous physicality of Tsui Hark's vision left them transformed.
"This film has turned me into a healthy person," says Fan. "I've fulfilled my annual sweat quota in just a single film!"
After a lengthy post-production process, involving four teams of digital effects artists in China, Korea, Singapore and Spain -- FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE was released across Asia in the winter of 2011. The film sprinted to blockbuster status -- reaching a series of box-office milestones, such as the all-time top grossing Asian language film in the IMAX DMR format; the fourth highest grossing IMAX DMR title (including North American product) across Mainland China; as well as the number twelve movie of all time in Mainland China.
At the 2012 Asian Film Awards, the film received eight nominations and two wins -- honoring Tsui Hark and his team across all major categories.