Three years on from the tumultuous events at Dragon Gate Inn, pregnant courtesan Sui Huirong (Mavis Fan) flees the imperial palace after incurring the wrath of spiteful Royal Concubine Wan (Zhang Xin-Yu), pursued by ruthless assassins acting on the orders of Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), a powerful eunuch. Luckily, Sui Huirong finds a protector in the form of a mysterious martial arts maiden (Zhou Xun) who has adopted the name of legendary hero, Zhao Huai'an. Which comes as a surprise to the real Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li), currently embroiled in a heroic mission to take out all the corrupt officials in the East and West Bureaus, two governmental divisions whose unchecked power threatens all of Ming Dynasty China. Trailing his feminine namesake back to the newly-restored Dragon Gate Inn, Zhao Huai'an confronts government troops searching for Sui Huirong. Also at the inn are a group of bandits who have formed an alliance in the hope of unearthing a lost treasure buried beneath the desert. Among their number are sword-wielding tomboy Gu Shaotang (Li Yu-Chun), tattooed Princess Buludu (Kwai Lun-Mei) with her band of Mongolian warriors and Wind Blade (Chen Kun, in a second role), a jittery but resourceful thief who bears an uncanny resemblance to the evil Yu Huatian.
As possibly the definitive "bunch of swordsmen trapped inside an inn" wu xia movie, King Hu's 1967 classic Dragon Gate Inn influenced numerous martial arts films down the years before siring the superb remake, New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), produced, scripted and co-directed by Hong Kong New Wave visionary Tsui Hark. Billed as another remake, this lavish IMAX 3D epic (the first Chinese film in that format) is actually more of a sequel with Jet Li substituting Tony Leung Kar-Fai as dashing hero Zhao Huai'an and (SPOILER WARNING!) Zhou Xun essaying the role Maggie Cheung played so wonderfully twenty years ago, albeit with a severe though credible personality change. Enough similar incidents occur to draw this close to remake territory, begging the question, to paraphrase Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 (1990), how can the same shit happen to the same guy and girl twice, but Hark tweaks the plot down intriguing new paths.
It is less subversive and thematically ambitious than New Dragon Gate Inn but tells a more complex story while the new emphasis on fun and spectacle reaps dividends with the eye-popping 3D set-pieces. The film is not titled Flying Swords of Dragon Gate for nothing. Loads of objects are indeed flung at the screen, swords and more besides including some spectacular scenery and the flying fists of Jet Li. Nevertheless, Hark restrains his trademark frenetic camera moves to accommodate the 3D technology, proving again the format tends to constrain creative filmmakers. Events unfold amidst a beautifully woven canvas with epic scenery and extravagant special effects but among its endearing aspects is the manner in which Hark shuns the heavily tragi-poetic atmosphere prevalent in wu xia films in the wake of mainland films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2003) to evoke a distinctly Hong Kong flavour: vibrant, kinetic, outlandish and irreverent.
The film lacks some of the semi-comic playfulness found in the first remake but packs a lot of neat surprises and quite cleverly recycles past motifs: identity, duality and deception. Much like Alfred Hitchcock, Hark yokes a great deal of suspense from characters finding ingenious ways to get out of tricky confrontations, often pretending to be someone they are not. There is a quite marvellous sequence where Wind Blade faces some villains and gradually realises they have mistaken him for Yu Huatian, using that to his advantage. Hark places as much emphasis on his heroes' cunning strategy as on rip-roaring action scenes, although true to form, an astonishing fight inside a raging tornado draws the film into a whole other arena of ingenious spectacle and suspense plus some genuinely surprising twists. The coda is also very amusing. Performances are consistently strong with Jet Li a dependably solid, charismatic presence, Chen Kun outstanding in dual roles and another terrific turn from the versatile Zhou Xun, fast becoming Hark's go-to girl.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.