Saturday, December 17, 2011

SCMP: Action men give martial arts an extra dimension [Roast Pork Sliced From A Rusty Cleaver] (飲水思源)

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Actor Jet Li and director Tsui Hark back together for what they hope will be blockbuster that can drag a 'tired genre' into the 21st century

Clarence Tsui
Dec 17, 2011

They hadn't worked together since 1997, but when Jet Li and Tsui Hark met last year there was very little reminiscing - they got straight down to business.

The mainland actor and Hong Kong director last collaborated on the action drama Once Upon A Time in China and America (1997).

But when they met last year, Li says, Tsui only wanted to talk about how 3-D technology could take that classic of Chinese cinema, the martial arts action thriller, to a whole new level.

"He was saying how he thought Chinese filmmakers would only be mature enough to handle 3-D films in five or maybe 10 years' time," Li said.

"Then he said the Americans might already be onto 4-D, or whatever that would be by then, so probably it's best if we are to do it, to do it now."

The result was Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which will be released in Hong Kong next week. Made at a reported cost of US$35 million, Tsui's latest effort is a reinvention in more ways than one. A reworking of his 1992 film New Dragon Gate Inn, it is also being billed as the blockbuster that could rejuvenate what Li describes as a "tired genre".

"Audiences are fatigued about the wuxia world as depicted in 2-D films," Li said ahead of the film's premiere in Macau on Thursday. "For several decades, they've been treated to a stream of repackaged films about swordplay and fisticuffs - to a point that people would probably rather stay home and watch DVDs. It will be interesting to see how 3-D can bring in a new dimension."

The film has certainly been shaped to appeal more as a spectacle than a heartrending drama. It's a film in which human relationships are largely overshadowed by action sequences where Li's character, swordsman Zhao Huaian, does battle with his enemies - amid collapsing masts on a ship, on towering scaffolding in a huge cavern, and even in the middle of a tornado.

Li was an "excited novice" going into the movie, he says, with little knowledge of 3-D filmmaking and its possibilities. Now he has seen how the extra dimension can bring to life the "fantastical" nature of wuxia films. "In the past, you fight with a sword, and that's it. Now you can bring into sharper focus a lot of other things happening around the main action," he said.

For director Tsui, he says he first thought about using 3-D technology for martial arts films two months before he started shooting his last film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010).

"The technology can make the film more realistic. It's as if viewers really are flying through the environment on the screen. And the film [Detective Dee] has visual elements which can benefit from 3-D, such as the statue that stretches all the way into heaven," said Tsui, referring to the central geographical feature around which the Tang dynasty martial arts mystery unfolds.

He couldn't rework Detective Dee as a 3-D film in time, but Tsui said he instead started researching the technology.

He recruited as a consultant Chuck Comisky, who oversaw the stereography in James Cameron's Avatar. The American visual effects specialist gave lectures and workshops to the Flying Swords production team about the new medium.

Tsui was once known for shunning the mainstream aesthetic and has a string of offbeat and anti-establishment films under his belt, including We're Going to Eat You (1980) and Dangerous Encounters - First Kind (1980).

He said he had to adapt his style to the demands of 3-D filmmaking. "The impact of 3-D is in allowing viewers to watch, very clearly, the action unfolding on screen," he said. "It's all about giving them the feeling they are really in there, witnessing things up close and in person. So we can't do stylistic montages here - you cannot cut things into smaller sequences and edit them together."

Li, meanwhile, has high hopes of what Flying Swords will do for the mainland film industry. "I don't care about what role I would play in all this, but I'm sure in 10 years' time Hollywood producers will be coming to Hong Kong and pleading, in Chinese, for [Li's co-star] Zhou Xun to star in their films," Li said. (SCMP)

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