Seven Swords is another enormous film from Hong Kong’s prolific master producer/director Tsui Hark, whose Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story series are regarded as classics of HK film. This film brings together a lot of talent: Tsui Hark as director, Keung Kwok Man as director of photography, Japanese composer Kenji Kawai (best known for Ghost in the Shell) and a trio of big names in action choreography — veteran martial arts director Lau Kar Leung and frequent Tsui collaborators Stephen Tung Wai and Xiong Xin Xin.
The story (for this film, at least) is actually fairly simple. At the establishment of the Ching Dynasty, an imperial edict is handed down that forbids the study and practice of martial arts. Seeing an opportunity to make a fortune, a cruel military official from the previous dynasty named Fire-wind (Sun Honglei) has built himself an army of mercenaries, ravaging across China and hunting down martial artists for bounties. Greedy and cruel, they kill indiscriminantly, identifying the martial artists later in order to tally up the bill correctly.
Fu Qingzhu (Lau Kar Leung) is a retired executioner who decides to try and stop Fire-wind and his army. At the beginning of the story, we see Fire-wind bearing down on Martial Village, a frontier town where the locals have learnt martial arts in order to keep bandits at bay. Fu convinces two of the villagers (Charlie Yeung and Lu Yi) to travel with him to Mount Heaven to seek the help of a master of swords, Master Shadow-glow (Ma Jingwu). They’re successful, and return to Martial Village as the Seven Swords — led by Lau Kar-Leung’s character, they comprise Charlie Yeung, Lu Yi, Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Duncan Chow and Tai Li Wu. Each has a sword with different properties, from Charlie Yeung’s sliding blade that can pop out either end of the hilt, to Donnie Yen’s enormous Dragon Sword.
Seven Swords is a great big film, full of sweeping vistas and epic heroism. It’s a little more grounded in reality than some of Tsui Hark’s fantastical wuxia films, but it has the same broadly-drawn characters stirred by great emotions and personal duty. The film looks wonderful, has a great score (well, I like it: several other reviewers haven’t, from the looks of things) and has some wonderfully cinematic moments in it. There’s the occasional image that reminds me of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, King Hu’s classic wuxia films or Sergio Leone’s westerns.
But Seven Swords is also, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. A lot of the backstory for the individual characters is glossed over, so we’re presented with Donnie Yen’s glowering visage with no idea who he is or why he’s just leapt out of a snow-covered glacier. All of the heroic characters clearly have backgrounds and distinct characters… it’s just that we’re fed tiny allusions to them, rather than presented with them on screen. The film changes gear frequently, jolting through the story and breakneck speed in one scene and slowing right down for a moment of introspection in the next.
I remember reading about the film when it was in production (a Tsui Hark collaboration with Lau Kar Leung was not something I was going to pass over in a hurry!) and reading with some trepidation that Tsui’s original cut of the film had weighed in at about four hours long. The final cut (on the DVD release) is a much slimmer 153 minutes… and it’s the development of the characters and the quieter parts of the film that have disappeared. What’s left is a breakneck collection of action sequences involving larger-than-life characters with depths that remain unfortunately hidden.
Now, that’s not all that bad. Tsui Hark’s The Blade could probably be described the same way, and it’s one of the most striking pieces of action cinema that I’ve ever seen. But Seven Swords feels incomplete and hurriedly edited, a lesser version of what should have been a really, really fine film. Apparently the story is fleshed out much more (given the time constraints) in the mainland TV series that Tsui Hark produced at the same time, and there have been rumblings of sequels with more story to them, focusing down on a few of the characters at a time. Here’s hoping that the world of Seven Swords brings us another film that’s able to realise the promise that this one had!