Combat at Heaven Gate

Made during the early 90’s at the height of the action/kung fu flying films, this low budget film tries to capture a bit of that magic with very mixed results. It appears to possibly be a Mainland production (and is able to utilize some wonderful historical sites) and suffers from some of those Mainland action film maladies – weak special effects, disjointed editing, obscure actors (for the most part) and inconsistent fight choreography. The film was also as confusing to me as watching Mahjong being played in HK films.

Still for the most part I enjoyed this frenetic fast paced film. It has an almost Indiana Jones/Saturday afternoon serial movie feel to it. It jumps all over the place – never takes itself too seriously – and is full of action. Unfortunately a film like this depends very much on the ability to make the flying scenes somewhat credible and here the wire work is just atrocious as people are jerked all over the place. I am not sure what goes into good wire work – budget or time or simply the skills of the people pulling the wires? – but whatever it is – this film was very much lacking in them. Which is a shame because you could sense there was some imagination being used for these scenes, but the execution just could not handle it.

The film begins with a prologue that takes place in ancient days when a doctor has been called from the capital to cure a high official of a migraine headache. The official is attempting to cure it himself by having ten women play tug of war with his head. It looks like fun – but it doesn’t do much for his headache! The doctor arrives – accompanied by his assistant Sibelle Hu – and with a few acupuncture thrusts he eases the man’s pain. Regretfully, the doctor goes on to tell the official that to cure him for good he will need to cut open his head and remove the cockroaches that are within! This doesn’t set too well with the official and he has the doctor executed. Sibelle and this concubine look at each other for a frozen moment in time as this is announced.
Don't say anything about the cockroaches this time!
Jump ahead to the 1930’s and it appears that this doctor had the cure to every known disease written down in his books and clues to the whereabouts of the missing books have been uncovered – pointing to somewhere called Heaven Gate. The Chinese, the Japanese and the Germans all start looking for the books and doing everything they can to stop the other parties from finding them. This leads to a lot of action – primarily hand to hand – and seemingly many of these people have learned the trick of jumping large distances (though in an oddly herky jerky manner!).
And for some reason that is never explained two of the women – one from the Chinese group and one from the Japanese group look exactly like doctor’s assistant and the concubine! Maybe they didn’t have enough actors. This short summary is actually much more straightforward than the film really is - as the movie jumps from scene to scene with little explanation or sense – but with a good sense of fun.