The latest Tsui Hark movie is more than a decent stab at a ‘wuxia’ movie in the wake of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers – but does it fall short of being the epic he intended?…
Set in the early 1660s, the Manchurians have taken over the sovereignty of China and outlawed the use of martial arts. Employed in this service are Fire-Wind (Sun Honglei, Zhou Yu’s Train, The Road Home), an official from the previous dynasty, and his band of ruthless mercenaries, who ravage the North-west territories collecting a price for all ‘martial artists’ they kill or capture, even women and children.
Fu Qingzu (Liu Chia-Liang, credited as Lau Kar-leung, Temple of the Red Lotus, Magnificent Trio, Scorpion King, d. 36th Chamber of Shaolin, d. Spiritual Boxer, d. Tiger on Beat), a retired executioner also from the last dynasty, tries to convince a small villiage on the outskirts of the territory that they are next. Only Wu Yuan Yin (Charlie Yeung, What Price Survival, High Risk, Dr. Wai and the Scripture Without Words) and Han Zhi Ban (Lu Yi) believe the danger the village is in.
They agree to take him to Mount Haven to seek help from Master Shadow-Glow (Jingwu Ma), who bestows swords of incredible power upon them. He send four of his best disciples with them: Yang Yun Chong (Leon Lai, Infernal Afairs 3, Fallen Angels, Heroic Duo), Chu Zhao Nan (Donnie Yen, Hero, Iron Monkey, Blade II), Mulang (Duncan Lai, credited as Chow) and Xin Long Zi (Dai Liwu).
The Seven Swords successfully beat off Fire-Wind’s unsuspecting troops, even taking the battle to his own fortress. There Chu frees Wind’s mistress, a Korean slave called Luzhu (Kim So-yeon) and they form a connection. Fire-Wind doesn’t take this lightly, sending his army to destroy the villagers and their new heroes, they are soon on the run. But there’s a traitor in their midst, could it be a member the seven or even one of their own number?
From the very start, Hark’s vision to bring popular martial art novelist Liang Yusheng’s work ‘Qi Jian Xia Tian Shan’ (with it’s undisputable debt to Kurosawa) to the screen was always going to be a rather daring venture. Having dreamed of working on the project since he’d worked in television in the 1970s, Hark saw it as a Hong Kong/Chinese version of the Lord of the Rings saga, with five or six films in total, a TV series, comics, an online game (phew!). Sadly, if Hark’s not careful, some of it may go the same way as George Lucas’ original 6 sequels to the Star Wars trilogy…
Hark decided on a less fantastical version of martial arts than we’ve been use to lately, in films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – something he calls ‘Reality wuxia’. Those familiar with his work will recognise it as a familiar theme, from his very first picture The Butterfly Murders, a deliberate response to the glossy, studio bound Shaw Brothers movies of the late 70s, to Hark’s One-Armed Swordsman remake Blade and the Ringo Lam film he produced Burning Paradise, both gritty looking reactions to the wuxia movies of the early 90s. It shares the same style as those movies, the villains look the same (wearing black, how novel), even some of the same contraptions – such as the ‘flying guillotine’ beheading device seen in Burning Paradise.
It’s like Hark is returning to old ground, desperately trying to polish off previous work, and it wouldn’t be the first time. With his recent CGI fest Legend of Zu Hark returned to the Huanzhu Louzhu novel that made his name on the international scene Zu: the Warriors from Magic Mountain. Unfortunately on that occasion the results were disastrous – losing the original’s charm in a cloud of effects, however brilliant they were, and complete lack of plot.
To help him bring this to the screen he’s enlisted famed action choreographer and director Liu Chia-Liang, responsible for possibly one of the greatest kung fu movies ever 36th Chamber of Shaolin, who stars and helped train the cast. The result is literally far more grounded than much of the martial arts we see nowadays, taking full advantage of casting stars like Donnie Yen – even if the finale brawl is reminiscent of his appearance in Once Upon a Time in China 2, also directed by Hark. With the CGI effects far subtler, the film lacks the jaw dropping scenes so wonderfully realised in Zhang Yiomu’s movies. It also looks, dare I say it, decidedly old school. Compared, for instance, with Yen’s own choreography for the otherwise below average Twins Effect.
Seven Swords is a solid piece of filmmaking, with great cinematography. He even reaps good performance from his cast, particularly Sun Honglei – who almost brings a little too much humanity to his role as the evil Fire-Wind, but when Leon Lai is one of the most personable characters on show you know you’re in trouble. And that’s the major flaw in Hark’s movie, no character development at all. Only the two youths from the village Wu Yuan Yin and Mulang are really fully developed. Fair enough, they are our route into the story, but it leaves the other characters of the seven – who hint at being far more interesting – woefully under expanded.
Hark lost over an hour and a half’s running time for the films theatrical release, and though he made a good job of editing it down, honestly, it does show. The narrative is not as choppy as some reviews suggest. However, at points it becomes all too obvious what’s missing when flashbacks show us new material. Also, having spent such an obvious amount on time on the design and production, not only of the look, but the very weapons of the swordsmen themselves, it seems a shame we hardly see them.
On the positive side, at a still impressive two and a half hours, it doesn’t feel anywhere near that long. It’s likely to please anyone who felt Zhang Yimou’s movies were too slow and verbose, but you can’t help but wonder what could have been. In its current form it doesn’t match the equally gritty Musa: The Warrior. We may have to wait for a ‘director’s cut’ to see if this really is Hark’s tour de force.
Seven Swords did reasonably well at the box office in Hong Kong and China, and will be released throughout the world, including in the UK on 24 February 2006. It’s success means that the proposed sequels are currently in production.
Home media details
Distributor: Deltamac (Hong Kong)
The Deltamac DVD is a superb transfer, with great sound and fantastic packaging (on the LE version), including a pouch of production drawings. The second disc offers a fair amount of bonus features, including plenty featurettes, trailers and interviews. And here's the clincher - all with English subtitles!
As discussed in the review, this is theatrical release NOT the much mooted 4 hour version. If you want to see Seven Swords in it's full glory you might want to wait for a 'directors cut' to come along - WHEN the Film Workshop get round to working on it!
Distributor: Hong Kong Legends/Contender Group (UK)
A superior transfer and sound quality, jam-packed with extras, can't hide the disappointment that this is the UK theatrical release. Approximately 15 minutes have been cut from the film, even though it wasn't big on character development in the first place. At still over two hours long I'm at a loss to say why these cuts have been made, less why they weren't reinstalled to the DVD. (Didn't they miss a trick? 'The version you didn't see at cinemas'?)
However, these scenes are included as deleted scenes, along with deleted scenes from the original release - a mouth-watering hint at what might be in store should the mooted '4 hour' version ever appear. This release includes much of the content from both original 2-disc and 3-disc versions making a solid DVD release full of interviews, making of and shooting diaries (but no directors' commentary - as seen on the HK 3-disc version!)
Now, if only they'd let us watch the film as it was originally released?