Wuxia is a genre of Chinese films. Wuxia is a compound word, with wu meaning martial, military or armed, while xia means honorable, chivalrous or hero. The wuxia is therefore a martial hero who isn’t a servant of the emperor or any other state official or other government functionary. The wuxia hero protect and represent the lower classes in their struggle against the ruling class. Wuxia films are usually epic in nature and provide the basic, classic confrontation between the good and the evil, for control of society.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate takes place in the aftermath of a titanic struggle at the Dragon Gate Inn which was actually done in a film some 20 years ago. The inn was burned down and “Jade” (Xun Zhou) the innkeeper disappeared. This film opens three years later, with a new inn on the site of the old, burned out hulk of a building. Legend says the Inn is built on the site of a lost city filled with treasure that is hidden deep within the city.
The emperor has put two Bureaus, East Bureau and West Bureau in charge of overseeing the nation, and ferreting out any opposition. The men who run these bureaus seek to carry out the emperor’s wishes while enriching themselves at the expense of the people. But “Zhou Huai’an” (Jet Li) and his compatriots are defenders of the people and when the East Bureau plans to carry out executions at a shipyard, they interfere, battle a legion of East Bureau guards and kill the leader of the East Bureau contingent there. This sends the rest of the leadership of the East Bureau into hiding.
Where “Yu Huatian” (Kun Chen), leader of the West Bureau shows up with his men and demonstrates his martial superiority over the East Bureau, and tells them he is taking over. He’s a busy guy as he is also in charge of a search for a pregnant maiden who escaped from her position in service to the Emperor’s concubine, who happens to also be very much attracted to Yu. He does whatever she asks or orders. When it looks like this maid, “Su Huirong” (Mavis Fan) is about to be captured by Yu’s men, someone attacks, claiming to be Zhou Huia’an, although it cannot be he. For he is watching from nearby and sees the fake Zhou overpower the West Bureau soldiers. The fake Zhou and the maid make their escape and from there, they journey to the Dragon Inn.
At the inn, they will find some Tartars, and some of Yu’s men. The Tartars, and others are involved in a plan to find the hidden city that lies somewhere beneath the Dragon Inn, which will be revealed by a giant sandstorm that is due soon, and comes only once every 60 years. One of the conspirators is “Wind Blade” (also Kun Chen) who looks just like Yu, and will come to impersonate him, to try to learn what his men are up to.
The plot is complicated. Capture the runaway maid. Reunite Zhou with the person who is impersonating him, because they have a past. Stop Yu. Find the gold. Get out in one piece. There’s action, fights, lots of flying swords and knives, and it’s all in magically precise IMAX 3D for your viewing pleasure.
Sadly, Jet Li disappears at the height of the story for about 25 to 35 minutes, which doesn’t help the action, or the story. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of fight sequences which are fast paced, although perhaps just a bit too “aerial” in nature, even for wuxia. The plot twists and turns keep the audience interested in the story, which is more than just a visual tale. The variety of characters, almost all of whom are engaging is also a plus. Clever writing is present, although as always, dialogue will suffer when it has to be translated and subtitled from its original language. Writer/director Tsui Hark is at his best and he delivers the first wuxia film in IMAX/3D and delivers a fine effort, worthy of even a non-wuxia fan checking out.