Seven Swords Review
In China in the mid-1600s, warriors from Manchuria have taken control of the royal palaces and have established the Qing Dynasty. Realising that rebellions by nationalists opposed to the new order will need to be guarded against, the government issues an order that all practitioners of martial arts must surrender their weapons to their nearest official. Failure to comply with the government's edict will, all notices read, be considered a crime most serious and will be punishable by beheading.
However, rather than ordering the army to carry out these orders, the government solicits the use of mercenaries, offering a bounty for the head of each rebel but such are the riches promised that the innocent are murdered as ruthlessly as the rebels. Mercenaries, regardless of their allegiances prior to the Qing Dynasty, see this edict as a means to become amongst the wealthiest of men. As they cross the land, whole towns fall before their swords with neither women nor children spared. And yet, when the situation becomes most bleak, word comes of a single warrior carrying out attacks on the army of General Fire Wind (Sun Hong-Lei). As news spreads, Fire Wind grows increasingly concerned at these attacks, believing them the first sign of a popular uprising against his men, which will continue to grow if not swiftly dealt with.
After one such attack, this man, Fu Qingzhu (Lau Kar-Leung), is ambushed by Fire Wind's men and injured. He is followed out of the village and is thought to be hiding in Bowei Fortress, home to the Heaven and Earth Society, which, due to its history of martial arts being used in defence against bandits, is where Fire Wind is preparing to send his army next. On arriving at Bowei Fortress, badly injured and barely able to speak, Fu warns of Fire Wind's approach but, remembering him as a state executioner, they ignore his warnings in favour of throwing him into a makeshift prison, from where he will be tried and sentenced to death for past crimes. But with the help of Fang, the daughter of the governor of the fortress, Fu escapes with Han Zhibang (Lu Yi) and Wu Yuanying (Charlie Young), leading them to Mount Heaven, where they seek help from Master Shadow-Glow, a legendary swordsmith.
Shadow-Glow listens carefully to the words of Fu Qingzhu and offers him assistance - four swordsmen and three weapons. Accepting the swords of a master craftsman, Fu, Han and Wu lead Xin Longzi (Tai Li-Wu), Yang Yuncong (Leon Lai), Mu Lang (Duncan Chow) and Chu Zhaonan (Donnie Yen) down from the mountain to Bowei Fortress, where three-hundred of Fire Wind's men awaits them. Slaughtering them, the Seven Swords move on Fire Wind's castle but a surprise awaits them as two old friends meet and realise that a simple fight to the death will not settle the mistrust between them...
It may be that I am something of a novice with Asian cinema but Seven Swords comes as something of a mixed bag of styles. In a very simple sense, it is an epic mix of martial arts and swordplay - a kind of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven but with a great deal more blood and onscreen severing of limbs - but it is also interrupted by flights of imagination wherein straightforward scenes are given a delicately studied air. In one respect, this gives Seven Swords a beauty that will be familiar to anyone impressed by Hero or House of Flying Daggers but it gives Seven Swords an occasionally muddled feel about it, with events occurring offscreen and, as an audience, one learning about it through a recollection that may or may not be a trusted one. There is a certain dreaminess to the film that, though visually appealing, leaves one unsure of the truth in events. Add to this much backstory and Seven Swords concludes as a treat for the eyes but not for one's love of storytelling.
But the battles, which are sure to be the main attraction for some of the audience for this film, are wonderful, if not as poised as Hero. Instead, Seven Swords is closer to the horrors of Seven Samurai, doing away with the thunderous rainstorms and replacing them with a cold wind that blows into the eyes of the warriors, leaving dirty, dusty towns soaking with the bright red blood of fallen rebels. The opening battle is a perfect example of the style of the film with Fire Wind's troops laying waste to an entire village, their grey complexions and black armour standing out against the brief glimpses of blood on the ground. Director Tsui Hark maintains this look throughout the film, occasionally placing the action in a different location but never forgetting that a beautiful backdrop makes the frenzy of a battle all the more memorable.
However, being adapted from a novel by Liang Yu-Shen, it does feel as though much was lost between page and screen. The problem with an ensemble film such as this one - and it happened in The Magnificent Seven as much as it does here - is that characters tend to get lost. The seven swordsmen here do not get an equal amount of screen time and Seven Swords tends towards the stories of Dragon Sword (Chu, Donnie Yen), Unlearned Sword (Fu, Lau Kar-Leung), Deity Sword (Han, Lu Yi)and Heaven's Fall Sword (Wu, Charlie Young). So it may be that they are the most interesting characters in the film - though in denial of their feelings both Deity and Heaven's Fall Swords are drawn towards one another while there is a subplot regarding Dragon Sword's rescuing and love for Green Pearl (Kim So Yuen), a Korean woman enslaved by Fire Wind - but Transience, Celestial Beam and Star Chaser Swords do tend towards getting lost in the action. Add to that a long-winded journey through the mountains, a siege and the uncovering of a traitor, as well as one worrying about how keenly one should follow the many characters who wander into the story, and Seven Swords is often a meandering epic, one that could well have done with having its story made more succinct.
For the battles alone, though, this is often a great film, not only looking extraordinarily beautiful but thrilling and often hugely exciting. Whilst some of the wire work is very obvious, the sword fights and martial arts work are of a very high standard as is the score and, mostly, the direction. More's the pity, then, that the story rambles as it does. Had Seven Swords been that bit more direct, it would have been a better film and so much more powerful. And yet, even during its frequent diversions, Seven Swords looks terrific and maybe for that, one's prepared to forgive it a great deal.
On a good television and DVD player, Seven Swords can look very good but that's more to do with the sparseness and framing of the picture than the actual transfer. Watched once, I would have been prepared to say that Seven Swords is well presented on DVD but watched again, there's a softness to the image that a good home entertainment setup does much to hide as does Tsui Hark's direction. The mix of colour and darkness, neither of which obscures the action, leaves Seven Swords a great-looking film but one that the DVD only does a decent job by. Certainly, it's an attractive picture but there's a small amount of detail that's missing in anything other than close-ups whilst backgrounds tend to look nondescript
The audio tracks are superb, though, with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS and while there isn't a great deal between then, the DTS track is the better of the two. Slightly louder and sounding a touch clearer, the DTS track is an excellent one but both are perfectly capable of accompanying the film. Finally, subtitles are optional but are only offered in English.
Without any extras on the first disc - there is no commentary on the feature but there are some Previews - it's left to the second disc to carry all of the special features but, even then, whilst there's plenty here, much of it is very ordinary. Beginning with a set of UK Theatrical Trailers and a TV Spot (1m43s, 1m01s, 31s) and followed by two Hong Kong Trailers (1m32s, 2m53s), this Promotional Gallery ends with International Press Footage (3m29s). This is followed by an Interview Gallery, which features director Tsui Hark and all of the principal cast members talking about their involvement in the film. Of the ten interviews, here the questions are shown onscreen in English via title cards with the answers given via the interviewees natural Mandarin and forced English subtitles. No interview lasts for more than eleven minutes and each member of the cast are presented with almost the same set of questions. Tsui Hark's, by being that bit different, is probably the best of the interviews but at only 9m09s doesn't quite give them the time to fully explain his making of Seven Swords.
The actual Making of Seven Swords (17m33s) that has been included here is by no means a bad one but is rather scattered in its approach. It becomes obvious why that is, though, when the four Shooting Diaries (5m13s, 4m17s, 5m16s, 5m15s) that follow are shown to be the source for much of the material that appears in the making-of. Taken all together, there is a good deal of information on the production included within the Shooting Diaries, which are constructed of on-set footage and brief interviews with the cast and crew that appear to have been snatched during takes. The Making-of is a more professional affair with the on-set footage being intercut with interviews filmed later and in the studio. Following this, there is a Production Gallery (3m46s) of concept art, behind-the-scenes shots, stills from the film and promotional art.
Finally, there are two sets of Deleted Scenes, four of which were edited from the film before its Original Release (7m42s) and from the UK Theatrical Release (13m39s). The former doesn't add a great deal to the film but the latter would, were they added back into the film, have left it a little less confusing in parts although the identity of the traitor would have been more obvious.
Whilst my criticisms may be those of someone without a great deal of experience with Asian cinema, please don't assume that they will conclude with my saying that Seven Swords is a rather ordinary martial arts action film. On the contrary, this is often very enjoyable, usually exciting and always beautiful but not a breakout hit in the manner of Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It will, then, be more appreciated by an audience predisposed to martial arts cinema than one that isn't but it's still a stunning film to watch and to experience if not one with particularly memorable moments within its story.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 15:48:03