Rumor has it that the original cut for Tsui Hark’s wuxia epic “Seven Swords” originally ran over four hours, before it was trimmed down to 2 hours and 30 minutes for cinematic consumption. “Seven Swords” is, in many respects, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s famed “Seven Samurai”, wherein swordslingers with nothing to lose are recruited to defend a village against bandits. Four of the swordsmen come from the aptly named Mt. Heaven, where a master swordsmith has endowed his four disciples (Leon Lai, Donnie Yen, Duncan Chow, and Liwu Dai) with four powerful swords with which to do battle. The remaining three consists of villagers Yuan Yin (Charlie Yeung) and Zhi Ban (Lu Yi), and former Imperial executioner Fu Qing Ju (Lau Kar-Leung).
Set in the down and dirty 17th century, “Seven Swords” is far removed from the palaces and cities of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or the colorful jungle and prose of Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero”. The premise of Hark’s film is that the new ruling Ching Dynasty has outlawed martial arts, and anyone caught practicing the discipline is to be executed. Taking advantage of this new law is the bellicose Fire-wind (Honglei Sun), who has assembled his own private army to clear out the martial artists in the land for blood bounty. His latest target is Martial Village, of which many are practitioners of martial arts.
With action choreography by Donnie Yen and the legendary Lau Kar-Leung, there are, justifiably, huge expectations for the action in “Seven Swords”. The fights are fast and furious, and the bodycount massive. The results of the combat is of the red meat variety — gallons of blood, decapitations, severed limbs, and people dying by the bunches. Of the film’s five or so fights (three involving the seven swordsmen), the intricately choreographed battle between Chu Zhao Nan (Yen) and Fire-wind within the confines of a narrow corridor marks the film’s highlight. Curiously, although “Seven Swords” has been touted as more “real” and “gritty” than the recent spate of wuxia, it nevertheless uses a lot of obvious wireworks. Also, it’s humorous to imagine real people in 17th century China wielding such lumbering weapons as those featured in the film.
Although the action is excellent when it arrives, there are long periods where nothing happens except characters suddenly falling in love and wandering about the landscape for long periods doing nothing. For an action film, “Seven Swords” is not all that action-pack, with just three (or perhaps four) battles in the first two hours. In the second half, we’re forced to sit through almost an hour of plot machinations. Of course this wouldn’t be so bad if the story was at least half interesting. The abundant characters and their little insignificant love affairs, love glances, and love triangles bog the film down in mostly asinine melodrama. Of particular pointlessness is Chu Zhao Nan’s preoccupation with a whimpering Korean love slave that takes a good 30 minutes of screentime.
Of the cast, Donnie Yen is most imposing as Chu Zhao Nan, a no-nonsense killer with long, unkempt hair. We don’t even see Chu’s face for much of the film, and the only time his sword ever comes unsheathe is when it’s ready to deliver the killing blow, which it does with amazing efficiency. Unfortunately Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, and the rest of the cast get lost in the muddled story and convoluted emotions. Yeung’s character does provide some unexpected comic relief via her tricked out sword, while Lai barely registers as a viable personality. One is hardpressed to understand why he was even cast; the character simply has no depth, wandering about the screen like an automaton for much of the film.
The film’s aesthetics is overwhelmingly brown, bland, and drab, which makes sense considering the hard desert terrain on display. Martial Village looks like one giant hole in the ground, with houses built along the outer edges. And although it encumbers itself with one too many side plots, characters, and some questionable non-linear narrative, “Seven Swords” is very straightforward. After the initial encounters at the village, followed by a raid on bad guy Fire-wind’s desert castle, the seven swordsmen decides to move the villagers, before finally taking shelter underground. The film then pulls out an ace and threatens to torpedo the film’s entire premise (saving the villagers) by revealing a traitor who goes on a murderous rampage.
Other nitpicks involve the villagers, who despite being mostly martial artists, are barely able to stand up to Fire-wind’s marauders. The villains may dress up in “The Road Warrior”-style gear and paint their faces like wrestlers from the WWE, but the way they fall to the seven swordsmen would seem to indicate they’re more style than substance. As the villain, Honglei Sun has the right combination of perversity and madness, but more interesting is his only henchwoman, who sports a haircut that would make Mister T. proud. It should also be noted that the film’s score is Godawful, approaching the kind of quality you’d hear being produced by a High School marching band; that is, if all the musicians in said band were tone deaf, and the conductor himself a deaf mute.
If “Seven Swords” is any indication, Tsui Hark has not yet returned to form. The film is a mild improvement over the excesses of “Legend of Zu”, although not by much. There is still the feeling that Hark doesn’t quite understand narrative logic, or perhaps he’s working under a completely different set of rules, and refuses to let us in on it. Despite being over 2 hours, “Seven Swords” feels very much like a film that was cut down from an original 4-hour running time. But while the extra hours would probably plug some of the film’s plot holes, I doubt that the excised footages were more than exposition and character scenes, for the simple reason that you don’t cut out action in an action movie. As such, adding the extra hour and a half back in will simply make “Seven Swords” twice as unwieldy as it already is, so maybe the cutting room is where they belong after all.
Hark Tsui (director) / Liang Yusheng (novel)
CAST: Liwu Dai …. Xin Long Zi
So-yeon Kim …. Green Pearl
Duncan Chow …. Mulang
Leon Lai …. Yang Yun Chong
Honglei Sun …. Fire-wind
Donnie Yen …. Chu Zhao Nan
Charlie Yeung …. Wu Yuan Yin
Lu Yi …. Han Zhi Ban