Seven Swords Review
Working again with Donnie Yen in the wuxia martial arts genre, there was perhaps reason to expect something special from Tsui Hark, director of New Dragon Inn, Zu Warriors and the Once Upon A Time In China series with his latest film Seven Swords, an epic old-school martial arts swordplay drama with fantasy elements. And indeed there is much to enjoy here, but the film suffers from a number of flaws that hold it back from being truly great.
An Imperial Edict has forbidden the use of martial arts and a band of bounty hunters under the command of Fire-wind is sweeping across the country killing not only practioners of martial arts but, at three hundred pieces of silver per head, even innocent people and children. During their razing of Yi Town however, one man shows himself to be a match for these ruthless killers. Rescuing a girl Yuanyin outside the town, the two of them return to Martial Village to warn the people of the terror to come. The man however is recognised as Fu, a feared executioner who tortured and executed revolutionaries at the Ministry of Punishment for the previous dynasty twenty years previously, and he is not trusted by the villagers. Yuanyin and her friend Han help him to escape however and travel to Mount Heaven, a mountainous realm of immortals. There Fu, Yuanyin and Han enlist the services of four warriors who agree to help them and each of them are granted gifts of a fabulous sword of special powers. The Seven Swords however know that resisting Fire-wind’s forces will only bring further trouble to the village, so they take the fight to Fire-wind himself, while the villagers make their escape.
In terms of action choreography, Seven Swords seems fairly weak, lacking as it does the extensive use of CGI effects in recent Chinese and Hong Kong martial art and swordplay films like House Of Flying Daggers or even Kung Fu Hustle. Tsui Hark however seems to be deliberately avoiding the trend to push martial arts further into the realms of improbable computerised effects and floating combatants, keeping the figures earthbound and their acrobatics, although obviously wire-assisted, are within the realms of realism. In what appears to be a complete absence of CGI, Hark returns to old-style wire-work and the use of prosthetics for decapitations and hacking off of limbs. There is no reason why this should not be equally as effective as CGI and perhaps with some better editing it would work, but it all does look a little fake in places. Every cut seems to start/stop and there is no flowing continuity to scenes.
Clearly avoiding the use of over-elaborate CGI effects, the director seems to want to focus more on the storyline and strong characters – elements that have often been sacrificed in many modern CGI-fests (such as those named above). Director Tsui Hark is clearly aiming for the same sense of epic battling as Seven Samurai (the situation is the standard group of seven heroes saving villagers from evil bandits) along with the mythical grandeur, heroism and doomed tragic love affairs found in The Emperor And The Assassin and particularly Hero with its melancholic element of its characters Broken Sword and Flying Snow. However, both the storyline and the characterisation suffer from a large number of gaps in the progression of the story, either through cuts imposed on a 4-hour version of the film, or through just trying to pack too much into the running time. All the elements are in place, the heroes themselves are potentially strong, each of them coming with special swords of powers and the situations give plenty of scope for action, romance and tragedy. It’s set-up like a martial arts serial (and the music score reflects this, sounding more like a TV theme rather than a majestic score that is really called for here), and in order to draw out these characteristics, you really need an episodic structure where each person and their weapon has a chance to show what they can do so that they can be seen to be called upon at the opportune moment of crisis. Here their personalities are insufficiently developed and everything blurs into a mess of action sequences where, without having had time to get to know the characters, you can barely work out who is fighting or what they are doing.
Yet for all the flaws, I personally found much to enjoy in Seven Swords. It’s actually more likely to appeal to fans of magical fantasy more than to martial arts fans, there being strong sword and sorcery elements with mythical swords of power and Manichean divisions of good and evil. And while there are problems with the choreography and photography of the action scenes, at least Donnie Yen’s climatic fight scene with Fire-wind almost lives up to its billing with a spectacular wall-climbing fight sequence in a narrow alley that I confess I played through again in freeze-frame to marvel over. Yet, I can understand why many viewers would be disappointed in this and it’s not just because it avoids the trend for the flashiness of Matrix-like CGI sequences – Hark has all the elements in place here and the ability to do something truly great and majestic, but fails to deliver through a muddled, choppy narrative and less than adequate editing of action sequences.
Seven Swords is released in Hong Kong as a special 2-disc edition from Deltamac. The set has the advantage of having both film and extra features discs fully subtitled in English. The DVD is in NTSC format and is not region encoded.
The cinematography in Seven Swords is stunning, using carefully composed colour schemes, from the earth tones and vivid blood-reds of the early battle sequences to the orange and yellow flames of Fire-wind’s Pearly Gate outpost and the cool crisp tones of the realms of Mount Heaven. The transfer copes equally well with each of these extremes, showing some dullness and softness in the village scenes, but crystal clarity in the snowy mountain sequences – although there is never any great amount of shadow detail in blacks. Artefacting in the form of grainy dot-crawl can be seen if the image is enlarged or examined closely, but it is rarely visible on a regular display during normal playback. There are no marks, scratches or dustspots on what is a clean, clear print.
The film comes with a choice of Mandarin or Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and I think Mandarin is the first choice, but obviously a lot of the actors are dubbed Cantonese speakers. The surround soundtrack is fine, generally clear and effective, but a little thin and not particularly robust, with little use of subwoofer or rear speakers. These obviously come to life in the action sequences, but are a little harsh and booming.
Optional English subtitles are provided in white font and are generally unobtrusive, lying outside the 2.35:1 picture frame when only one line is visible, and one in/one out when it stretches to two lines. The grammar and spelling cause very few problems and can be easily followed, although they can fly past quickly on occasions. There are a few long sequences spoken in Korean and this is identified with a (Korean) at the end of each line spoken.
A Teaser (1:28) has no dialogue other than the slashing of swords, but the full Trailer (3:00) is subtitled in English. It actually presents the characters, the swords and their powers better than the film itself manages to do.
On The Set
This section contains a Making Of (17:32), which is a standard EPK featurette with interview snippets from the director and all of the stars taking a superficial look at the film’s themes with a fair bit of behind the scenes footage. It’s reasonably good as far as these features go. Divided into four sections, the Shooting Diaries (19:52) shows filming from preproduction – preparing costumes and locations, training the actors – through to the shooting of action sequences and Mount Heaven sequences between August and November 2004. Inevitably a number of clips from this have been taken for use in the ‘Making of’. In true fantasy epic style, The Swords – The Swordsmen gives details of each of the Seven Swordsmen, their swords and their powers. Again, you learn much here that should be in the film.
The remaining features contain a short News Clip of the Hong Kong Gala Premere (3:30) on 22/07/2005, which is not subtitled, but there is not much spoken here. The Duel: Dragon vs Transience (6:12) is actually an interview with Donnie Yen , which turns out to be the most interesting and informative feature here, the actor expressing his enthusiasm for working with Tsui Hark, the character he plays and his feelings about the script. A Photo Gallery shows 45 photographs as Still images to be navigated through or as a Slideshow (3:02) where they are shown full-screen (4:3).
With Seven Swords Tsui Hark aims high, abandoning the current trend of mindless, ludicrously plotted, CGI-filled martial arts action movies for something a bit more solid, grand and epic. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, lacking that special flair with insufficiently established characters and some rather leaden editing, it nevertheless delivers with an entertaining and often thrilling tale with stunning locations, spectacular photography and some fine action sequences. There are some minor problems with the transfer and the extra features, although they contain English subtitles, are of limited interest. Generally however, the HK Deltamac R0 DVD presents this striking-looking film very well indeed.
Last updated: 03/06/2018 14:22:31