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  • 15
  • Action, Drama
  • 2005
  • 129 mins

Seven Swords

Seven Swords

Synopsis

Actor Donnie Yen broods in Tsui Hark's sprawling epic of chivalry and swordplay, set in 17th-century China

About

Ever since his 1979 debut The Butterfly Murders, Tsui Hark has proved a formidable innovator in 'wuxia' (the Chinese genre of martial chivalry), setting new standards in epic wirework and effects with his Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain and Swordsman, as well as the Chinese Ghost Story and Once Upon A Time In China film series.

Yet during the last decade, as Tsui's own career has been in conspicuous decline, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House Of Flying Daggers have given mainstream Western audiences a taste for wuxia with a decidedly arthouse flavour. So, with his latest wuxia extravaganza Seven Swords, Tsui is burdened with two contradictory requirements: to return to his past form and update his work to meet with the genre's new expectations. The film's unevenness shows just how much of a stretch this has been for him.

Northwestern China, the 1660s. Exploiting a new imperial edict against the practice of martial arts, mercenary opportunist General Fire-wind (Sun) has begun slaughtering entire communities for their supposed defiance, and then collecting the associated bounties. As he prepares to massacre the men, women and children of Martial Village, the only thing standing in his way is a rag-tag band of seven warriors armed by the elderly mystic swordsmith of Mount Tian, Master Shadow-glow (Ma Jing-Wu).

Liang Yu-Sheng's 'Mount Heaven' novels - a wuxia trilogy originally written in serialised form in the late 1950s - are renowned for their subtlety of character and complexity of plotting, but Seven Swords, adapted from the first chapter of the first 'Mount Heaven' book, displays neither of these qualities. While the film is full of impressive, sprawling desert backgrounds, nothing seems to occupy its foreground for long enough to grab the attention. So unfocussed is the plotting and editing, so bland is the characterisation, and so obscured are the actors' faces by shadows, hoods and hair, that it is difficult to tell the different warriors, villagers or even swords apart, let alone to engage with the love triangles and betrayals that form the film's dramatic core.

Tsui's original four-hour edit of Seven Swords was reduced to 150 minutes for the international festival circuit, and the version due for theatrical release in the UK is even shorter - but while this 'death by a thousand cuts' goes some way to explaining the film's incoherence, it can hardly be said to excuse it. Western viewers, unfamiliar with Liang's original characters and story, will struggle to work out what is going on in Tsui's soullessly impressionistic film, and will struggle even harder to care - while the the titular evocation of Kurosawa's superb Seven Samurai does neither film any favours.

The only real distractions offered by Seven Swords are Fire-Wind's scythe-licking punk lieutenant Kualo (alas killed off far too early), some beautifully-stylised colour filtering in the opening scenes, and an amazing climactic duel between Fire-Wind and hero Chu (Yen) played out in a very narrow corridor. Otherwise these Seven Swords do not so much pierce as bore.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Leon Lai, Donnie Yen, Duncan Chow, Charlie Young, So-Yeun Kim, Jing-Chu Zhang, Kar-Leung Lau, Li-Wu Tai, Yi Lu, Honglei Sun
  • Director: Tsui Hark
  • Screen Writer: Nam-Chun Tin, Chi-Sing Cheung, Tsui Hark
  • Writer (Book): Yu-Sheng Liang
  • Producer: Tsui Hark, Zhong-Jun Ma, Joo-Ick Lee, Zhi-Zhong Pan
  • Photographer: Kwok-Man Keung
  • Composer: Kenji Kawai

In a nutshell

With an epic cast but few distinguishable characters, Tsui Hark's latest makes a simple story as confusing as possible, and, despite all the swords, seems to have little real point

by Anton Bitel

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