Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
The movie is a direct remake of King Hu's 1967 classic Dragon Inn (Tsui, Ching and Hu worked together on the first Swordsman film, a contentious collaboration that began as a comeback attempt for Hu and ended in his quitting, or getting fired). A powerful intelligence service called the East Chamber, run by an evil eunuch, has seized power and begun executing anyone that opposes them. They kill a general, then use his children as bait in a ploy to draw out his allies, who will attempt to rescue the kids as they are marched to the frontier. Near the border, the Dragon Gate, there is an inn where all the principals will gather and the fighting will ensue. Hu's version is a masterpiece, slowly establishing the several factions in the first half then devoting the second to two days and a night of warfare. His characters are classical types (the woman warrior, the wandering swordsman) from wuxia film and literature, underplayed to bring out subtle nuances in their various relationships to each other and the martial virtues of chivalry, loyalty and duty that form the core beliefs of the genre.
Tsui and his team follow the setup of Hu's film exactly, going so far as to imitate the music of the original (the eunuch's arrival is always accompanied by a memorable fanfare of atonal horns). The characters are significantly different, though, modernized to add a dash of black comedy and sex. The inn is run by Maggie Cheung, leader of a gang of thieves who falls in love with the swordsman, played by The Other Tony Leung, who himself is in love with Brigitte Lin, the woman warrior who disguises herself as a man (because she's Brigitte Lin and that's what she does). The machinations of this love triangle run parallel to the attempts by the heroes to escape the inn out from under the noses of the eunuch's forces, with a little cannibalism and some action thrown in here and there. Cheung is fantastic in the many (and there are many) comic seduction scenes, funny and sexy and charming (the scene where she and Lin acrobatically rip each others clothes off is, well, you know). Her character isn't in the original, though you can find an precedent for her in Hu's later The Fate of Lee Khan (also set in an inn by a border). The Other Tony Leung though seems a bit lost and Lin spends most of the movie moping around the margins of the screen, looking longingly at Lin and sighing quietly. The scenes in the inn just aren't all that great, which is a problem when so much of the film is set there (whereas at least half of the original was fight scenes, almost none of this remake is). The film lacks the complications and twists of Tsui's best work (the not entirely dissimilar Peking Opera Blues for one), which it really needed to succeed after sacrificing the classical clarity of Hu's original. Still, as with pretty much any Tsui-related film, there are moments of great beauty (various interactions between Lin and her flute) and moments of great weirdness (the cannibalism, the fate of Donnie Yen's limbs).
Things improve when the final action finally begins. It is in the hectic Ching Siu-tung style: bodies flying everywhere, the rapid cutting and quick camera movements disjointing the geography of the frame while abstracting the various crazy poses of the combat. The guiding principle for Ching's action scenes is always speed: speed in the actors, speed in the cutting, speed in the camera's movement. When he gets all three going, the result is an overwhelming sense of chaos, a very different feeling than the Chang Cheh/Lau Kar-leung approach to action, with its emphasis on clarity of movement designed to foster an appreciation of the athletic skill of the actors. Ching's style is, I think, the more traditional one: editing used as a special effect, to hide the fact that the actors in wuxia films can't actually fly (in the digital 21st Century, that's no longer impossible, and we get the leisurely cutting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero). But I don't think it's used, as it is in Hollywood, to cover up the fact that the actors can't fight, or to use the sensation of speed as a substitute for the visceral thrill of on-screen action. I think if you break a Ching action sequence down shot by shot, you'll find that all the necessary acrobatic movements are there, just as if you took out the photographic smeariness of Ashes of Time, you'd see some spectacular Sammo Hung choreography. The rapidity isn't design to cover up the action (as in Hollywood) so much as it gives you more action than you can possibly process, while simultaneously serving as a special effect. Lau doesn't need it because his films are "realistic" while cutting-as-effect is a device of fantasy.