Tsui Hark takes Hollywood dead on with a bold, special effects laden, kung fu epic.
The story takes place during the Ming Dynasty. A pregnant concubine is saved from execution by Jade (Zhou Xun), the former owner of the Dragon's Gate Inn. She takes the girl into the dessert, followed by an evil official (Chen Kun), and her former lover, Chow Wai On (Jet Li). The parties mix it up at the old Dragon's Gate Inn, where others are waiting to learn secret to a vast treasure. Their time is limited as a once in a lifetime storm threatens to destroy the inn and reshape the land.
The plot is quite detailed. I've only hinted above to the general outline of what's happening. The true motives and identities of many characters are revealed as the story progresses. You really have to pay attention. There are a lot of speaking parts in this film. I was a bit confused by the large number of characters, but slowly started to understand who was who. It didn't help that I sat too close and was reading gigantic subtitles on the IMAX screen. I would highly suggest sitting a decent distance away to take into the scope of the entire screen. Every scene is quite detailed, so you don't want to miss too much just concentrating on the subtitles.
There's a lot of CGI in the film, but it's really relegated to the exterior action. The fighting, swordplay, and wirework are all outstanding. Hark may have gone a bit overboard in some scenes, but you get the feeling he wanted to make the film look huge; really live up to the IMAX screen. It works most of the time, but I did get lost in the action a few times. The fight choreography lives up to the 'Flying Swords' title. The primary characters use swords, knives, and throwing weapons while swirling around for various reasons. I thought it was cooler then less, so no issues here with Hark going over the top.
My favorite actor in this film is the villain Chen Kun. He sort of plays two parts, but that's one of the mysteries you have to figure out. He's quite good here, playing an excellent foil to Jet Li's more somber performance. Chen kicks some major ass, but is also deliciously cutthroat and menacing. I find most villains in martial arts films to be fairly standard, so it's good to see an actor shine in that role. He's bad mofo here and pretty much owns this film over the more established actors.
I hope that Hark's foray into IMAX and 3D is improved, not copied, by his peers in Chinese cinema. Other markets also need to capitalize on these formats and keep Hollywood on its toes. IMAX 3D is getting blasé in western filmmaking, so it's up to everyone else to keep the experience fresh. The Flying Swords of Dragon's Gate is a solid effort in the new school of enhanced theater experience.