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Seven Swords (2005) (Blu-ray) (2019 Reprint) (Hong Kong Version)
Charlie Young (Actor) | Leon Lai (Actor) | Donnie Yen (Actor) | Lu Yi (Actor)
Seven Swords (2005) (Blu-ray) (2019 Reprint) (Hong Kong Version)
After too long Tsui Hark makes a return to the director's chair for Seven Swords, an ambitious martial arts epic based on "The Seven Swordsmen from Mountain Tian", a wuxia novel by Liang Yu-Sheng. Tsui's absence from Hong Kong Cinema has been felt, though the feeling has been a mixed one. After all, Tsui's last two features were the special effects-assisted Black Mask II and The Legend of Zu. One was an egregious comic book movie, the other an ambitious fantasy that was more sensory overload than success. This reviewer even referred to the once-annointed cinema master as "George Lucas on crack." Does Seven Swords further that designation? Or does it mark the return of arguably Hong Kong's best filmmaker of the late eighties and early nineties?

Thankfully, the answer skews towards the latter. Seven Swords - while not reinventing martial arts cinema or reaching the heights of many of Tsui's masterpieces - still manages to entertain and even enthrall, though in uneven and sometimes underwhelming fashion. Tsui's epic is set in Ancient China after the establishment of the Ching Dynasty. The government, fearing retribution from nationalist martial arts types, decide to impose a Martial Arts Ban. More specifically, the practice of martial arts is punishable by decapitation. Aside from putting the fear of headlessness into the local populace, this ban induces evil-looking mercenary types to carry out the ban for the government, thus lining their pockets with blood money AND ridding the land of "good" martial artists.

Chief among these bad guys are a band of bastards led by Fire-Wind (Sun Hong-Lei, clearly enjoying playing the bad guy), who are set to take out Martial Village, home to the Heaven and Earth Society and a major head collection for Fire-Wind's greedy minions. Most of the village is partial to martial arts, but the general understanding is that the villagers don't stand a chance. Luckily, they get help. Former executioner Fu (Lau Kar-Leung) takes two of the villagers, Yuanyin (Charlie Young) and Han (Lu Yi) with him to Mt. Heaven to receive the counsel of Master Shadow-Glow, a legendary swordsmith who just so happens to hang with a passel of supreme sword disciples, among them happy-go-lucky Mulong (Duncan Chow), acrobatic Xin Longzi (Tai Li-Wu), stoic Yang Yunchong (Leon Lai), and glowering badass Chu Zhaonan (Donnie Yen). Shadow-Glow bestows magnificent swords upon Fu, Yuanyin, and Han, and sends the three with his four disciples to kick some major Fire-Wind tail. Bingo: the Seven Swords are born, and bad guys must beware. Or something.

Seven Swords is remarkably simple in both construction and setup. Basically, this is a story about seven supreme swordsmen (or five, since Han and Yuanyin need to get the hang of their new weapons) who band together to right wrongs. That's it. Within the first hour they're already charging back towards Martial Village on their horses, and within 90 minutes they've already dispensed major pain to Fire-Wind's army. The martial arts set pieces that mark this first 90 minutes are fun, engaging stuff, though they're a step below the visceral dazzle of Tsui's The Blade, and nowhere near as balletic as the stuff that the Hero/Crouching Tiger crowd expects. This is rough-and-tumble, grounded martial arts, and it's refreshing in its gritty, dirty excess. It's also a mite confusing, as the editing seems more concerned with energy and movement than fluidity. Sometimes fights start and then stall, and the audience never sees a concrete outcome. Kenji Kawaii's score compensates somewhat, though the martial arts sequences frequently become more of a thundering montage than an actual start-to-finish battle. Still, it's all good. Fight fans who love their choreography uninterrupted could be annoyed, but the sheer furious energy of the action sequences entertains.

Matching the grounded feel of the martial arts is the costume and set design, which eschews pretty costumes and gorgeous colors for more neutral-colored rags and dusty landscapes. Tsui Hark and company go for practical realism rather than pretty pictures for Seven Swords, and again the effect is refreshing. The realistic trappings help overcome the film's essential simplicity; fantasy is put aside, and the trials and mortal danger experienced by the characters (well, the characters who aren't supreme swordsmen) takes on greater edge. Granted, this is just padding to a standard wuxia plotline, but the realistic settings and grounded action help make the world of Seven Swords into something more accessible.

There's other stuff that pads out the storyline of Seven Swords. The Heaven and Earth Society holds secrets, supreme swordsman Yang Yunchong is pained at returning from isolation, Yuanyin likes Yunchong, Han's girlfriend Yiufang (Zhang Jingchu) may like someone else besides Han, and there's even a Korean connection. Bad guy Fire-Wind has a thing for Korean beauty Green Pearl (Kim So-Yeon), an obsession that Tsui Hark lingers on with lurid fascination. Also having a thing for Green Pearl is swordsman Chu, which is weird because it means Donnie Yen gets to play the smoldering romantic hero. Oddly, the veteran martial artist succeeds at being a charismatic hunk, an accomplishment which should be added to Tsui Hark's list of laudable cinematic achievements. Right below "He directed Peking Opera Blues," it could say, "He made Donnie Yen into a romantic hero." Will wonders never cease.

The problem with all of this: it's just padding on a very thick, but ultimately disconnected storyline. There's backstory and hidden agendas in Seven Swords, but the details are handed out in a manner that's almost separate from the actual nuts-and-bolts butt-kicking that people paid to see. After the first 90 minutes, the town of Martial Village goes on a caravan through the desert, and stories involving unrequited love, hidden traitors, possible secret agendas, and Michael Wong as a mustachioed government official appear. Much of it is engaging, e.g. some themes involving the necessity and paralyzing horror of violence, but much of the film's drama is handed out in exposition or after-the-fact flashbacks. The effect ultimately lessens the drama, and further disconnects the story from the action. Plus, there are so many characters and storylines in Seven Swords that most simply do not get enough coverage to matter to the audience. As a result, the film is more underwhelming than compelling, and doesn't satisfy on the level of the popular crossover wuxias of the last five years.

However, these are high level quibbles. Tsui Hark has never been the most coherent storyteller, but his films have possessed an energetic imagination and cinematic vibe that have usually made them infectiously entertaining, if not all-out good. Seven Swords does not succeed as Tsui Hark's best works have, but the action, iconic characters, and the world that it creates are more than enough to make the film worth recommending. If one is expecting too much of Seven Swords, then the film is bound to disappoint. Still, your expectations shouldn't be that high. After all, look at Tsui Hark's last two films; after Black Mask II and The Legend of Zu, expectations should be pretty damn low.

Besides, saying that Seven Swords does not match Once Upon a Time in China, The Blade, or Peking Opera Blues is asking way too much. Those are great movies, and while Seven Swords may not be great, it's good enough. True, it has too many characters, is sometimes underdeveloped, sometimes overstuffed, and probably could even have been trimmed for theatrical release, but Seven Swords does something that a worthy film should: it leaves you wanting more. Whether that means more character backstory, more romance, or simply more action, Tsui Hark's latest film represents an oasis in a very dry desert. Hong Kong Cinema needs movies like Seven Swords, and it succeeds at its genre well enough that the supposed four-hour cut of the film - or Tsui Hark's threatened sequels - sound like things worth looking out for. Plus, Seven Swords shows us that somewhere, somehow, Tsui Hark might still have it. The Master may not completely be back, but hopefully he's on his way.

by Kozo - LoveHKFilm.com


Other Professional Review for this Title

In China in the mid-1600s, warriors from Manchuria have taken control of the royal palaces and have established the Qing Dynasty. Realizing that rebellions by nationalists opposed to the new order will need to be guarded against, the government issues an order that all practitioners of martial arts must surrender their weapons to their nearest official. Failure to comply with the government's edict will, all notices read, be considered a crime most serious and will be punishable by beheading.

However, rather than ordering the army to carry out these orders, the government solicits the use of mercenaries, offering a bounty for the head of each rebel but such are the riches promised that the innocent are murdered as ruthlessly as the rebels. Mercenaries, regardless of their allegiances prior to the Qing Dynasty, see this edict as a means to become amongst the wealthiest of men. As they cross the land, whole towns fall before their swords with neither women nor children spared. And yet, when the situation becomes most bleak, word comes of a single warrior carrying out attacks on the army of General Fire Wind (Sun Hong Lei). As news spreads, Fire Wind grows increasingly concerned at these attacks, believing them the first sign of a popular uprising against his men, which will continue to grow if not swiftly dealt with.

After one such attack, this man, Fu Qingzhu (Lau Kar Leung), is ambushed by Fire Wind's men and injured. He is followed out of the village and is thought to be hiding in Bowei Fortress, home to the Heaven and Earth Society, which, due to its history of martial arts being used in defense against bandits, is where Fire Wind is preparing to send his army next. On arriving at Bowei Fortress, badly injured and barely able to speak, Fu warns of Fire Wind's approach but, remembering him as a state executioner, they ignore his warnings in favor of throwing him into a makeshift prison, from where he will be tried and sentenced to death for past crimes. But with the help of Fang, the daughter of the governor of the fortress, Fu escapes with Han Zhibang (Lu Yi) and Wu Yuanying (Charlie Young), leading them to Mount Heaven, where they seek help from Master Shadow-Glow, a legendary swordsmith.

Shadow-Glow listens carefully to the words of Fu Qingzhu and offers him assistance - four swordsmen and three weapons. Accepting the swords of a master craftsman, Fu, Han and Wu lead Xin Longzi (Tai Li Wu), Yang Yuncong (Leon Lai), Mu Lang (Duncan Chow) and Chu Zhaonan (Donnie Yen) down from the mountain to Bowei Fortress, where three-hundred of Fire Wind's men awaits them. Slaughtering them, the Seven Swords move on Fire Wind's castle but a surprise awaits them as two old friends meet and realize that a simple fight to the death will not settle the mistrust between them...

It may be that I am something of a novice with Asian cinema but Seven Swords comes as something of a mixed bag of styles. In a very simple sense, it is an epic mix of martial arts and swordplay - a kind of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven but with a great deal more blood and onscreen severing of limbs. But it is also interrupted by flights of imagination wherein straightforward scenes are given a delicately studied air. In one respect, this gives Seven Swords a beauty that will be familiar to anyone impressed by Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It gives Seven Swords an occasionally muddled feel about it, with events occurring off-screen and, as an audience, one learning about it through a recollection that may or may not be a trusted one. There is a certain dreaminess to the film that, though visually appealing, leaves one unsure of the truth in events. Add to this much back-story and Seven Swords concludes as a treat for the eyes but not for one's love of storytelling.

But the battles, which are sure to be the main attraction for some of the audience for this film, are wonderful, if not as poised as Hero. Instead, Seven Swords is closer to the horrors of Seven Samurai, doing away with the thunderous rainstorms and replacing them with a cold wind that blows into the eyes of the warriors, leaving dirty, dusty towns soaking with the bright red blood of fallen rebels. The opening battle is a perfect example of the style of the film with Fire Wind's troops laying waste to an entire village, their gray complexions and black armor standing out against the brief glimpses of blood on the ground. Director Tsui Hark maintains this look throughout the film, occasionally placing the action in a different location but never forgetting that a beautiful backdrop makes the frenzy of a battle all the more memorable.

However, being adapted from a novel by Liang Yu Shen, it does feel as though much was lost between page and screen. The problem with an ensemble film such as this one - and it happened in The Magnificent Seven as much as it does here - is that characters tend to get lost. The seven swordsmen here do not get an equal amount of screen time and Seven Swords tends towards the stories of Dragon Sword (Chu, Donnie Yen), Unlearned Sword (Fu, Lau Kar Leung), Deity Sword (Han, Lu Yi) and Heaven's Fall Sword (Wu, Charlie Young). So it may be that they are the most interesting characters in the film - though in denial of their feelings both Deity and Heaven's Fall Swords are drawn towards one another. There is a subplot regarding Dragon Sword's rescuing and love for Green Pearl (Kim So Yuen), a Korean woman enslaved by Fire Wind - but Transience, Celestial Beam and Star Chaser Swords do tend to get lost in the action. Add to that a long-winded journey through the mountains, a siege and the uncovering of a traitor, as well as one worrying how keenly one should follow the many characters who wander into the story, and Seven Swords is often a meandering epic, one that could well have done with having its story made more succinct.

For the battles alone, though, this is often a great film, not only looking extraordinarily beautiful but thrilling and often hugely exciting. Whilst some of the wire work is very obvious, the sword fights and martial arts work are of a very high standard as is the score and, mostly, the direction. More's the pity, then, that the story rambles as it does. Had Seven Swords been that bit more direct, it would have been a better film and so much more powerful. And yet, even during its frequent diversions, Seven Swords looks terrific and maybe for that, one's prepared to forgive it a great deal.

By Eamonn McCusker - DVD Times





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