Warning: There’s a very real danger that after you watch the dazzling 4K restoration of this 1967 Taiwanese martial-arts classic, you’ll never again be able to champion scratchy grindhouse prints with cheesy dubs. Popping with Technicolor-ish clarity, it feels like looking through a window back in time, albeit not necessarily to the Ming Dynasty era depicted. A small inn on the edge of the desert becomes a setting for conflict when secret police and imperial guards take residency, looking to assassinate some political prisoners who are en route. When rebels, defectors, and a mercenary also show up, excuses for onscreen fighting follow closely behind.
The slow build of the action is deceptive, as at first the martial arts are all in the editing. A weapon will be thrown and we’ll instantly cut to its target, who has either already been impaled or caught the projectile in midair. Gradually, however, we get to flaming arrows, somersaults, leaps into trees, and the most bizarre cinematic take on asthma you’ll ever see. Though it was remade in 3-D IMAX by Tsui Hark in 2011 as The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, this original boasts a better special effect in star Shih Chun, whose offbeat handsomeness, goofy overbite, and ability to fire off castration jokes as easily as arrows steal the show. The restored dialogue may not transcend its origins recorded on obviously crappy microphones, but really, that only enhances the happy weirdness of it all. Like Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, this cast takes the project super seriously even at moments when you can’t — and dammit, they’ll make you believe.
Written and directed by King Hu
Opens May 6, Film Society of Lincoln Center