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by Jay Seaver

"The 3D may be a gimmick, but it's a fun one here."
3 stars

It's a bit of a shame that the 3D booms of the 1950s and 1980s didn't spread particularly evenly around the world, especially to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan; by the time 3D became a regular component of action-movie releases another 30 years later, martial-arts cinema wasn't quite what it once was. In between, a few people decided to play with 3D kung fu in 1977. It didn't stick, for one reason or another, but that doesn't mean there's not some fun to be had in the 3-D Film Archive's new restoration of "Dynasty".

The story is kind of familiar - the Ming Dynasty is being secretly controlled by the likes of Eunuch Tsao (Pai Ying), with sole holdout Prince Chiu (Chin Yung-Hsiang) gone into hiding in the Shaolin temple. Also there is Tan Sao-Chin (Dorian Tan Tao-Liang aka Bobby Ming), the son of a murdered loyalist general and a martial-arts prodigy. Hopefully, he'll match up well against Liang Tsi-Wu (David Tang Wei), and ambitious lieutenant in Tsao's forces looking to leapfrog Generals Liu (Chin Kang) and Zhao (Lin Tai-Hsin) by helping him stop his most dangerous enemy - especially since the fight with the temple's abbot (Ma Chiang) has left Tsao temporarily without his own considerable kung fu skills.

Like a lot of martial-arts movies from the period, Dynasty arrived in the United States dubbed into English; unusually, the new release only has that and not the original Mandarin soundtrack, and I can't help but wonder if it would be a better movie story-wise if the dialogue weren't being tweaked for better lip-sync and delivered by voice actors with a mishmash of accents. The dub doesn't quite set the movie up for mockery, but it turns the melodrama down in a movie that can use it - Pai Ying's award-nominated performance as a grandly evil villain mostly still comes through via his physical acting, both in how he carries himself and his fighting, but none of the others are quite so effective. Maybe some different inflections would help a bit with the film's somewhat odd structure, where much of the attention is on Tsao and Liang rather than the hero; it plays, at times, like a sort of slasher movie, with Tan the off-screen boogeyman emerging just long enough to knock off Tsao's minions, who progressively put up a better fight.

The good news is that the action is above average - martial arts director Han Ying-Chieh performed the same role for King Hu's wuxia classics and Bruce Lee's Hong Kong hits - and while there's more than a bit of wire-fu, the big fights are nevertheless fast and athletic, often culminating in nasty kills and played out with an entertaining combination of choreographed grace and exhausting effort. Han and director Chang Mei-Chun seldom let a fight be just an athletic demonstrating, making sure that the various characters still feel like they've got their own style and making sure that Tsao's (often justified) arrogance or Tan's rage comes through with their fighting styles, and making the impossible endurance some characters exhibit satisfying rather than silly. Cinematographer Chen Jung-Shu takes to the third dimension impressively well, and the three of them let it dictate their staging in striking ways.

As a result, parts will look silly when watched flat, whether it's a monk rigidly pushing a staff toward the camera or scenes where there are objects in the extreme foreground that get in the way. Like many 3D movies, Dynasty is often at its best (and most 2D-friendly) when it's encouraging creative use of space, something which translates well no matter what format in which one watches the film, but there's still plenty of well-shot fun with the third dimension, especially as the film heads toward the finale with Tan facing down a half-dozen warriors armed with flying guillotines and a final fight where it's very handy to be clear where three people are in relation to each other. It's also worth noting that 3D wasn't the only new toy these filmmakers were playing with as they often made sure that an army would ride past the audience on horseback to show off the quadraphonic sound.

Strip the special formatting away, and "Dynasty" is a solid if not tremendously remarkable wuxia action movie. Throw it in, though, and you've got flying guillotines coming straight at your face, and if that's a mere gimmick, then more movies should have that kind of gimmick so well-executed.

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originally posted: 05/04/21 00:11:52
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  N/A (R)
  DVD: 13-Apr-2021



Directed by
  Mei-Chun Chang

Written by
  Kuo-Hsiung Liu

  Tao-liang Tan
  Ying Bai
  David Wei Tang

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