Find out why Black Belt's resident film critic believes this Tsui Hark-directed martial arts movie from 2012 beats big-budget flicks like Avatar when it comes to 3-D effects.

I was up late editing my next book when I decided to catch up on some DVR’d shows that I hadn’t found time to watch. For some insane reason, before I could press play, I tuned in to a TV show that promised to reveal the top 50 3-D films of all time. The people behind the program wound up choosing James Cameron's Avatar (2009) as No. 1. Now, I've written film reviews for the past 24 years — covering horror, sci-fi, fantasy, animation, action and martial arts — so I've seen a lot of 3-D movies. In fact, my experience with them dates all the way back to Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). That motivated me to start an Internet search for “top 3-D movies.” Sadly, none of the lists I found named what I consider the best 3-D film ever made. To me, this indicates that when it comes to martial arts motion pictures, many critics still surround themselves with a bubble of cinematic illiteracy. So which 3-D movie should those Internet lists have put in that No. 1 spot? Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the 2012 film that Tsui Hark directed and Jet Li starred in. You have to see it in 3-D to believe it. In case you came in late: When Western-trained, new-wave filmmaker Tsui Hark directed Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain in 1983, he rang in the “fant-Asia” film era. What Tsui did in Zu with a red sheet, some string and camera speed adjustments was eerie and mind-numbing. It came as no surprise that Tsui would be able to handle 3-D technology with equal adeptness.


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My wife and I attended a one-time screening of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in San Diego in 2012. It wasn’t in a tiered theater that offered unobstructed views; it was in an ordinary cinema where a person with unruly hair happened to be seated in front of my wife, partially blocking her view of the screen and, we feared, totally blocking the subtitles. Nevertheless, both of us thoroughly enjoyed the 3-D showing. Like the rest of the audience, our minds were blown within seconds. The opening was a bird’s-eye view that followed a trajectory that wound between the masts of a ship. Ordinarily, you’d expect to have masts 3-D’ing into your face, but in this movie, we actually flew through the masts. That illusion caused many viewers to jump back in their seats. Even the subtitles leapt off the screen. They seemed as though they were right in front of our eyes. My wife could read them without having to strain to see around the hairdo — and for that, we were grateful. A common issue with American-made 3-D films is that after the opening credits and the studio logo almost poke your eyes out, within 15 minutes most people get used to the effects to the point that they don't realize the movie is in 3-D. Tsui was wise to make sure the audience never became complacent with the extra dimension in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.

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One of the many engaging scenes in Flying Swords involved crows that flittered through a mountain pass. It, of course, had everything you’d expect, including birds that were flying toward you, birds that were angrily pecking each other and birds that were bearing beady eyes while seemingly soaring though your lap. Then, out of nowhere, a murder of crows flew into the screen from behind our heads. Like the rest of the audience, my wife and I immediately turned around to see if any other avians were sneaking up on us. Just when we thought it couldn't get any wackier, the final fight between two swordsmen began — inside a giant 3-D tornado! It was OMG times three. Many of the top 3-D films on those aforementioned Internet lists were either animated affairs — which are easier to convert to 3-D for theatrical release — or big-budget efforts — like Avatar, which cost $237 million to make. However, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is live action and cost a paltry $35 million, which amounts to an extremely low budget for such a high-end production. This is why, in my view, it's the best 3-D film ever made. (Photos Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment Group) Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.
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