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New Dragon Gate Inn vs. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: A Movie Comparison

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NEW DRAGON GATE INN VS. FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE: A MOVIE COMPARISON

By: Matthew Lee

Written April 20th, 2015

“If you’re going to remake a film, it should be better than (or at least different from) the original…” —Jeff Vice, Deseret News Movie Critic

The summer is quickly approaching.  As soon as the month of May comes around, I make it a plan of watching Avengers: Age of Ultron.  But for now, or at least for the near future, I get to enjoy myself with whatever actual free time I have left.  And despite the need to study for my final exam, as well as the need to complete final assignments of the semester, I have also found myself with a bit of free time now.  With the combined mention of movies and free time, you probably have a good idea what the focus of this write-up will be.  This is exactly what it sounds like.  Yes, I’m writing about movies again.

This is the return of “A Movie Comparison”, which compares movies that, given the opportunity, I will continue to write about on occasion.  Given that this is a Wushu site, I will try to make these film choices relevant and focused mostly on Chinese, kung fu/action, or even other martial arts movies of interest.  For those of you that are familiar with the Nostalgia Critic, I am directly ripping off this internet celebrity’s segment, “Old vs. New.”  In it, he compares an older movie to a remake, and determines which one is better, based on multiple factors.  Before I begin, I would like to note that this is my opinion and ONLY my opinion, and is not set in stone (though those of you who have been reading my write-ups probably already knew that).  Again, given that this is a movie comparison, I would like to forewarn that it will naturally contain spoilers of both films, so please be aware of that.  So, without further delay, let’s take a look at this second edition’s choices of “A Movie Comparison”: New Dragon Gate Inn and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.

Background History

The relationship between these two films is a very interesting subject to delve into.  Both have famous director Tsui Hark attached to their names.  The older film, New Dragon Gate Inn (新龙门客栈; xīnlóngménkèzhàn), was itself a remake of Dragon Gate Inn (新龙门客栈; lóngménkèzhàn).  It was directed by Raymond Lee, produced and co-written by Tsui Hark, and released in 1992.  It was also notable for starring Donnie Yen in the role of the film’s villain, after his breakthrough role in Once Upon a Time in China II (黄飞鸿之二男儿当自强; Huángfēihóngzhīèrnánérdāngzìqiáng, Wong Fei-hung 2; Man Undertakes Self-strength), where he also starred as the villain opposite Jet Li’s character Wong Fei-hung.

The newer film, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (龙门飞甲; lóngménfēijiǎ, literally “Dragon Gate Flying Armor”), was released in 2011, and was said by Tsui Hark, who was the director and writer this time around, to be a “re-imagining”, rather than a remake of the older film.  However, in terms of the plot, it is interesting to note that Flying Swords of Dragon Gate can be considered to be somewhat of a sequel and/or spiritual successor, to New Dragon Gate Inn, which I will get into later.  This newer film had Jet Li in the starring role.  It is also important to note that this film was shot in 3D (3-dimensional), a factor which is important to consider later.

Better Protagonist

Both films technically share the same kind of character, differing only by the precise Chinese name.  Zhou Huai’an, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in New Dragon Gate Inn, and Zhao Huai’an, by Jet Li in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.  In both films, these characters are a leading figure rebelling against the imperial eunuchs of the Ming dynasty of China.  In retaliation, the eunuchs send imperial forces to pursue the protagonist and his companions in both films.

In New Dragon Gate Inn, Zhou Huai’an, as played by Tony Leung Ka-fai, is a very charismatic and composed figure.  As he demonstrates with his interactions with others, he is clearly as clever and intelligent as he is a formidable warrior, making an ideal heroic combination.  Throughout the majority of the film, Zhou Huai’an is forced to have to put on an act in front of his enemies, who are after him, at the Dragon Gate Inn.  And yet, in the end, his intentions are honorable and just.  All of Zhou Huai’an’s actions are done to protect the small band of companions he leads.  From the moment he first appears onscreen, he is someone you’d want to be like, or could easily follow in a heartbeat.

Jet Li as Zhao Huai’an in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate on the other hand, is again, just Jet Li.  As with most of the roles he has had, Jet Li becomes an expressionless martial artist, whose face barely even has more than two facial expressions, even when the script calls for emotion.  This is just another one of those roles, this time in the Wuxia (武侠; wǔxiá) genre, which is nothing new for Jet Li.  To be clear, this does not necessarily mean that Jet Li does not have acting ability.  Once again, as I have said in previous editions of “A Movie Comparison”, Jet has clearly in certain roles.  Unfortunately, this just happens to another simple, one-track role that Jet Li is typecast in, which ultimately only restricts him.  Zhao Huai’an displays virtually none of the traits that Zhou Huai’an has.  As is the case with many other comparisons to Jet Li, who is just a Wushu champion turned actor, Tony Leung Ka-fai is clearly a much more professional and better actor as well.

However, one other factor to consider in separate portrayals of this character is not simply the respective actors who have played him, but the writing in each portrayal as well.  It is clear that the character of Zhou Huai’an in New Dragon Gate Inn is written; each of his encounters and exchanges of dialogue is in-depth, and speaks not only to the character himself, but to those he interacts with, which serve to thicken the plot.  In Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Zhao Huai’an, and perhaps by extension Jet Li himself who plays him here, lacks the ability to display any of these qualities, perhaps simply because the way he is written in this particular film, which does noes not allow the character, or the actor, to do so.  Aside from the obvious action and the expositional dialogue he is given, there is little else offered to give the character, or Jet Li, anything beyond face value, which unfortunately isn’t much.  Thus, it may also, or only be, an issue of writing that results in the two different portrayals of these characters.  In any case, the first round goes to the oldie.

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Better Supporting Cast

I said in the first edition of “A Movie Comparison” that, contrary to popular perception, a film should NOT be carried by the weight of one lead actor.  Otherwise, it may as well just be a one-man (or a one-woman, don’t want to leave out the other gender) show.  Instead, the lead should be complimented by other supporting roles that make a complete plot, and by extension, a more enjoyable movie.

New Dragon Gate Inn contains a star-studded cast of many old school actors, each with a significant role at varying points of the plot.  Brigitte Lin plays Qiu Moyan, the lover and fellow swordsman of Zhou Huai’an.  Maggie Cheung plays Jin Xiangyu, the opportunistic innkeeper of the eponymous Dragon Gate Inn, whose motivations are grey throughout most of the film, and plays both sides of the heroes and the villains.  Yuen Cheung-yan, brother of the famous Yuen Woo-ping, and Yen Shi-kwan, also play supporting roles of Tie Zhu and He Hu, respectively, who work with Zhou Huai’an.  Ngai Chung-wai plays Ah Dao, a formidable knife (as his name suggests) wielder the cook of the Dragon Gate Inn.  Lau Shun plays villainous Cha, who is in pursuit of Zhou Huai’an, with Lawrence Ng and Xiong Xinxin playing subordinates.  And of course, the film also features Donnie Yen in one of his earlier roles as the villain eunuch Cao Shaoqin, who despite having a minimally active role in the plot, still carries a great deal of significance, influence and impact, with a heavy presence; perhaps this is a result of Donnie’s acting skills.  Much like characters in a theatrical play, each plays a specific role in the plot, whether large or detailed, and all of them are memorable.

As for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the cast left no impression on me at all.  The character of Ling Yanqiu replaces Jin Xiangyu as the supposed former innkeeper of the Dragon Gate Inn, and is played by Zhou Xun.  Chen Kun plays a dual role of the movie’s antagonist Yu Huatian, and one of the heroes, Feng Lidao, where the “uncanny likeness” of the two characters are exploited as a plot device at one point.  Louis Fan, as well as former Beijing Wushu Team member and champion Wu Di also appear in supporting roles as villains.  The beginning of the movie also contains a cameo by Gordon Liu playing the eunuch that fights with Jet Li’s Zhou Huai’an (which I think is disgraceful.  Seriously, to Tsui Hark and the makers of this movie, or whoever decided on or wrote this part for Mr. Liu, shame on you.  Shame on you.  Seriously.  You decide to employ Gordon Liu, one of the oldest and most respectable martial arts actors alive today, and you disrespect by giving him yet another role where he gets mopped by Jet Li, which is the second time this has happened?  And top of that, he already has a sad ordeal going on in his personal life, and this is just another shameful detail to add onto his lifelong career.  But I digress…).  Of course, there are many others, but I couldn’t be bothered to remember any of them, or their names (they probably did have names, but if they did, I couldn’t be bothered to remember those either).  And this is where the problem of the supporting cast in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate lies; there just isn’t that much to them that makes them memorable at all.  Aside from the filler expositional dialogue required to explain who they are, and their inclusion in the action scenes, they bring little else to the plot.  They simply serve their purpose of just being part of the movie, and that’s it.  The expositional dialogue and depth of the characters in Flying Swords at Dragon Gate are restricted to just being that—expositional.  I’m expected to believe that these characters have emotional depth and weight to them, simply because they say that they do, but not actually prove or actually show that they do.  They haven’t earned any emotional investment from the audience in watching the movie, and ultimately become forgettable.  To be fair, I do not mean to insult the actors themselves, who have participated in the making of this movie.  Aside from Jet Li, Gordon Liu, Louis Fan and Wu Di, I am not familiar with any other actor in this movie or their work, and thus am not able to judge their acting abilities objectively or fairly.  However, their performances in this particular movie certainly do not help them here, and based on this movie alone, they fall flat, especially in comparison to New Dragon Gate Inn.

Whereas the displays of the cast of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate are virtually superficial, New Dragon Gate Inn on top of having more clever dialogue, also have interactions that are not simply verbal, but also layered on many different levels, from looks that can tell without speaking, and emote without speech, to atmospheres around the interactions between characters, which are not simply explained, but are felt.  Again, as may be the case with the protagonists, they may be a matter of the writing of the characters and the script, which greatly factors into what is shown, and what is not shown.  But for sure, this kind of depth could not be possible without the skill of the actors, and in my opinion, the supporting cast of New Dragon Gate Inn simply did it better.  So, the second round also goes to the oldie.

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Better Action/Fight Choreography

As I said in the first edition of “A Movie Comparison”, what makes martial arts and action movies are the fight scenes.  If they don’t entertain even in the slightest, they fail to hold the audience.  For this comparison, there is not much that can be said about the actual martial arts/fight choreography itself, at least in format; both are put in the classic mold of Wuxia movies, abundant with wire fu and exaggerated choreography.  However, both use this format to different ends, and ultimately to different effects as well.

I have already stated my opinion in one of my write-ups last year, “Martial Arts in Media: What It Does and What We Can Do About It”, that fictional portrayals of martial arts, especially Wuxia, make it difficult to look at martial arts realistically, or take them seriously.  As a practitioner of Wushu who takes martial arts seriously, I have a generally low opinion of Wuxia movies, and prefer not to watch them.  However, I’ve also said before that at the end of the day, if a movie can at least tell a good story, or at least entertain me, it’s done its job, and thus I am also capable of making exceptions as a moviegoer, if the action serves to fulfill such a purpose.  And in the case of New Dragon Gate Inn, the action does just that.  Even though the action and choreography is clearly exaggerated, as is typical in a Wuxia movie, it is still relevant, even integral to the plot, and helps the storytelling in ways that dialogue cannot.  The fight scene near the beginning of the film shows how effortless Cao Shaoqin brushes away Qiu Moyan, even if it’s only for a couple seconds in the entire fight scene itself, which demonstrates his high skill as a fighter in addition to his political power.  And the various physical scuffles within the inn reflect the various parties and their respective interests and intentions, which compliments the dialogue scenes very well.  As a result, the exaggerated action in fact enhances the storytelling.  Perhaps the only thing iffy about the action in New Dragon Gate Inn is the very last portion of the final fight scene, where Zhou Huai’an, Qiu Moyan and Jin Xiangyu standoff against Cao Shaoqin, and are all nearly engulfed by the sandstorm, and Ah Dao being able to cut away the flesh of Cao Shaoqin’s leg and arm.  But other than that, the majority of the action itself was not bad at all.

Conversely, I can’t say the same for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.  Given the fact that Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was shot in 3D, it is clear that the action sequences and fight choreography was designed purely to exploit this gimmick, and thus the fight scenes, and by extension the movie, ultimately suffers for it.  Oftentimes, the physical action going on between the participants takes a backseat to the blatant and obvious 3D shots and clear CGI (computer-generated imagery), almost the point where the 3D and CGI virtually replaces the actual participation of the actors themselves.  As a result, the action becomes so obviously fake and exaggerated, even for a Wuxia movie, so much so that it detracts from the movie itself.  This was one of the first factors that took me out of being able to enjoy the movie.

Here’s why the action in New Dragon Gate Inn works, and the action in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate does not.  Despite the fact that the action in New Dragon Gate Inn is clearly exaggerated, it at least has actual, physical actors that give it substance; every time someone moves in an action scene, I can actually see that there are actual real people moving, which thus allows me to suspend my disbelief, and perceive what is happening, and “believe” it’s happening in the film.  Why?  Because even though it’s clearly fake, it’s still really there, and I can see that it’s actually there on the screen.  The same cannot be said for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, where much of this actual physical action is replaced by pervasive CGI, which is clearly not really there, and consequently easily destroys the illusion.  This also goes into the dichotomy of practical effects versus CGI; at the end of the day, even though nothing is “real” in a fictional work, the illusion, and ultimately the enjoyment of the viewing experience is itself, benefits from and is enhanced by something that is clearly being produced physically, as opposed to something that is clearly computer-generated, harder to believe, and thus more difficult to enjoy.  On this basis, I’m giving this next round to the oldie.

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Better Story

            This is arguably the most important element of a movie, at least for me.  It’s the determining factor that separates a great movie from a good movie, and what makes one movie better than the other.  So, this is the ultimate decider.  Regardless of the protagonist, supporting cast, or choreography, the story is what determines the better film for me.  And these are two very different movies.

New Dragon Gate Inn begins with the execution of the military official Yang Yuxuan, who defies the eunuch-run Eastern Depot (of the imperial palace) and its tyrannical influence over China, by Cao Shaoqin’s orders.  Though he has the rest of Yang Yuxuan’s family killed, Cao Shaoqin leaves Yang Yuxuan’s two children alive and under captivity, in order to lure out and capture Yang Yuxuan’s comrade, Zhou Huai’an.  Qiu Moyan rescues the two children with the help of Tie Zhu and He Hu, and the heroes flee to Dragon Gate Inn to rendezvous with Zhou Huai’an.  In response, Cao Shaoqin sends out his forces to pursue Zhou Huai’an and his party.  The premise is set when the heroes and villains all conglomerate under the roof of the Dragon Gate Inn, with the innkeeper Jin Xiangyu caught in the middle, Zhou Huai’an and his comrades trying to escape, and the imperial villains plotting to capture them.  The plot then becomes a kung fu movie version of Casablanca, but is told distinctly well.  Everything comes to a head with various interactions, exchanges and drama between many of the characters, including a love triangle between Zhou Huai’an, Qiu Moyan and Jin Xiangyu, who attempts to court Zhou Huai’an, and the ever building tension between the heroes and villains residing within the inn.

By contrast, the story of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was ultimately what threw me off of the whole movie.  Being a new creation, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate sees many additions to the basic premise.  In addition to the previously mentioned Eastern Depot, we see the entrance of a “West Depot”, led by Yu Huatian, who seek to ruthlessly pursue Zhao Huai’an for his acts of defiance against the imperial eunuchs.  At the same time, Ling Yanqiu rescues a supposed runaway courtesan from the imperial court, Su Huirong, played by Mavis Fan, from imperial forces, and escorts her to Dragon Gate Inn.  All the heroes and villains stop at the Dragon Gate Inn.  On top of all this, one specific party among the heroes is seeking to find a long lost hidden treasure, which in and of itself becomes a subplot near the end of the movie (like literally the last half hour of the movie.  Talk about jumping the shark).  Oddly enough, as I said before, the only interesting thing about this movie is the fact that it is a spiritual successor, and something of an indirect “sequel”, or rather continuation of some semblance of a plot, from New Dragon Gate Inn.  The most prominent example of this is the relationship between Zhao Huai’an and Ling Yanqiu, and her speaking of Zhao Huai’an’s long dead lover, whose token, familiarly a flute, she carries with her.  But other than that, the movie can barely stand on its own as a good story.

This is a case where the classic rule of storytelling stands steadfast: “Show, don’t tell.”  Again, this goes back to the writing and the acting out of the plot, as I’ve pointed out with the supporting casts of both movies.  In New Dragon Gate Inn, the storytelling works on multiple levels; as I’ve pointed out before, the dialogue alone is already cleverly written, much like that of a Shakespearean play, but the unspoken details are arguably just as good, if not better, in the interactions between characters, that further the plot, and work on multiple levels.  The many expressions, looks in characters’ eyes, that tell the emotions and story without even talking, and the creation of the atmospheres around the interactions between characters, which, again, are not simply explained, but are felt.  From the first meeting and look between Zhou Huai’an and Qiu Moyan in the film, which does not need any verbal explanation to demonstrate their romantic relationship, to Jin Xiangyu’s veiled moves, even her stealing of the Qiu Moyan’s flute from Zhou Huai’an, and of course the relevant action scenes, thicken the plot without a single word.  All of these elements are brilliantly written and interwoven together, to form an interesting narrative.  By contrast, much of the storytelling in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, relies on the expositional dialogue between characters, which merely explains away details of the plot, and takes them as is, rather than show the audience or demonstrate the weight of such details in the movie.  As a result, the interactions in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate are not nearly as engaging as those in New Dragon Gate Inn.  This is not to say that films that rely on expositional dialogue are incapable of being good, there are plenty of examples of the contrary.  But in this case, these two films simply don’t work like that.  Action films, including martial arts movies, especially kung fu movies, are very physical in nature, and thus should not simply rely on spoken dialogue and drama to entertain.  And in this case, New Dragon Gate Inn simply did it first and better than Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.

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Thus, the better film by unanimous decision is, New Dragon Gate Inn.  Surprisingly, this is the first edition of “A Movie Comparison” where the older film trumps the new one.  For those of you who have been following my writing, you may have already guessed where I was going.  But in all honesty, I simply feel that New Dragon Gate Inn did everything better than Flying Swords at Dragon Gate.  Currently, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which means one of two things.  Either the people at Rotten Tomatoes don’t know what they’re doing, or they haven’t seen New Dragon Gate Inn.  Both bewilder me.  Of the many old school, classic kung fu movies to have come out in the ’90s, New Dragon Gate Inn is certainly one worth watching, and shouldn’t be forgotten.  This is the third edition of “A Movie Comparison.”  Hope you liked it! J

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.