With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


On Monday night I went to see the 8:00 PM free pre-release screening of Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in IMAX 3D. The film will be opening August 31st, 2012 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities exclusively in IMAX 3D. I got a great seat in the reserved press section, mid-way up the height of the screen and just slightly off center. Was wowed, like many others, by the IMAX promo clip that preceded the film. Then the film started.

I'd love to give a full review of the film, but unfortunately I walked out  after about 30 minutes! Of a free screening of a Tsui Hark film starring Jet Li in IMAX 3D! Why? Well three reasons.

First, the English subtitles were pure white letters with no dark edging. I consider this to be a totally unforgivable no-no in this day and age. Why? Because any time the lower part of the screen where the subtitles appeared was light, it was difficult if not impossible to read them. (Some other attendees seemed to groan after a few seconds of these subtitles.)

Second, I didn't find the 3D effect all that great. The film is being shown exclusively in IMAX 3D, but I'd bet heavy that it wasn't shot that way. For the most part the 3D of Flying Swords looked like converted 2D. There were distinct planes in the frame (foreground objects in one, mid-distance objects in another, and distant objects in the third); no gradations of depth whatsoever. It was like watching a motion picture on the View-Master I had as a kid during the '50s, only on a really big scale.

According to a press release I received "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" in using new 3D technology. Well, I saw and loved Avatar; Flying Swords doesn't approach the look of Cameron's film.

Third, the combination of 3D on a huge IMAX screen and Tsui's trademark quick cuts in the frenetic action scenes hurt my eyes and gave me a bit of a headache. I'm not a big fan of Tsui's rapid fire cutting in action sequences, one of the reasons I wasn't awed as others are by his 1995 film The Blade.

Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest admiration for Tsui, whom I interviewed at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2011, and I truly enjoy many of the films he's directed. As for the physical impact of Flying Swords on me, I fortunately was pretty much back to normal by the time I got home, about an hour after walking out. And I have to point out that I had no problem watching Avatar in regular 3D.

There may have been one other walkout before me, but I can't be sure. And of course I have no idea if there were any after I left. Probably few, if any. But that was my experience, just FYI.

As for the story, it's a fantasy swordplay film that builds on the original Dragon Inn (1967), directed by King Hu, and Raymond Lee's 1992 version, on which Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung were uncredited co-directors. The film begins with an extended traveling aerial shot over a vast Chinese shipyard. It's nicely done, but an immediate giveaway that the viewer is entering a world in which CGI will most definitely be present, not to mention obvious. (The early action sequences similarly indicated that extensive wire-work would be used in this gravity-defying wuxia film.)

There are two evil factions of imperial eunuchs, some righteous fighters for justice who are led by Jet Li's character, and a fleeing maid who is pregnant with the Emperor's child. The maid is caught, but is soon rescued by a swordsman (actually a swordswoman) who is impersonating Jet Li's character. At the point when I walked out, the super-evil eunuch who heads the West Chamber has decided to intercept the maid at Dragon Gate.

Grady Hendrix, one of the founding members of Subway Cinema and the annual New York Asian Film Festival, was sitting two rows in front of me. On Facebook he wrote: "Just saw Tsui Hark's 3-D IMAX FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE. Four badass fighting females, three colliding plotlines, two killer sandstorms, and one fight inside a tornado later it feels like it's Hong Kong in 1993 again!" For his subsequent full review, click here.

For a different take than Grady's, see Ric Meyers' review of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in his April 16, 2012 post. Note that it appears to be a review of the DVD, not the IMAX 3D, film.

Perhaps I'll enjoy Flying Swords of Dragon Gate if I ever get to see it on a regular DVD, but the IMAX 3D combo obviously didn't work for me. Major disappointment for me personally, but most likely I'm the exception, or one of the relatively few.

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