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 (Kiem Khach)- 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 or Chung Tu Don). 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 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 hand 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 bind 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. And 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 underdevelop, 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 martial art film (phim vo thuat co trang)- 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.