Seven Swords

Reviewed by Lee Alon

Not counting the horrible Black Mask 2, Seven Swords represents Tsui Hark's return to the director's seat, a hallowed place the man perhaps doesn't take as seriously as he did back when he helmed mega-classics like New Dragon Inn and Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain. His latest opens on a startling, refreshing note with brutal action segments depicting the movie's villains taking out an entire village of martial artists, practitioners deemed illegal by the remote, anonymous emperor. Although merely glancing at the carnage rather than showcasing a full-on bloodbath, this scene works amazingly well in that it brings back campy joys straight out of the genre's heyday.

Even more, the excellent bad guys, resplendent in outlandish costumes and makeup, seem as if from some satisfying mid 80's hack 'n' slash number a la Barbarian Queen or Conan, which of course any whole-hearted action lover will spontaneously warm to. Led by General Firewind, the evildoers move as skull-collecting bounty hunters in a vicious campaign of murder, not even bothering to spare women and children. Delicious! Firewind's by far the film's best character, done by superb Sun Honglei, an always great actor whom we’ve enjoyed before in “The Road Home” and “Zhou Yu's Train”. His motley crew of madcap killers provides an abundant source of fun as well, each one deserving a good pat on the back for a job well-executed (pun intended).
Sadly, beyond this Seven Swords is a bloated behemoth at least fifty minutes too long. Most of it falls into easily avoidable traps, consisting mainly of mainstream sword action, too many characters for its own good and the usual focus on virtuous-righteous heroes winging in to save the day. The titular seven swords refer to a league of champions devoted to fighting injustice and protecting poor villagers from Firewind's rampaging force of deviants. Naturally, you can't help but root for the baddies, seeing as these synthetic goodie two-shoes have none of the amiable quirks that made us sympathize with, say, Kurusawa's Seven Samurai. The side of goodness here is just annoying. Their pivotal protagonists are next to invisible, with both Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey, Hero) and torpid-looking popstar Leon Lai almost asleep at the wheel. Others, such as veteran martial artist Lau Kar Leung (who also choreographed) and Charlie Yeung (recently spotted in New Police Story together with half of Hong Kong's film and stage community) can be witnessed merely marking time till the paychecks start rolling.
Granted, 7S has just that, seven cool swords, but they're caught trying to pose as the Green Destiny half the time, with the other half spent impersonating Lord of the Rings or Musa. In fact, Seven Swords is an outright rip of the latter, with a story following a group of refugees as they stand off against maniacal warriors, all set against harsh backdrops and some eye-catching locales. Donnie Yen even falls for a Korean princess-turned-slave in a lift out of Musa's tale, where a liberated slave warrior from Korea fell for a princess from China (Zhang Ziyi). How obvious can you get? And said Korean princess (Kim So Yeun) doesn't even hold to scrutiny, doing a horribly stereotypical portrayal of the ever-abused Korean woman, bouts of hysteria included. Together with a few select moments of bubble-gum elasticity, the relationship between Yen and Kim sticks in the movie's mid-section like eternal desert dunes separating one oasis from another, as audiences long for a reprieve from this artificially sentimental dry spell.
And Seven Swords, despite costing more than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or any other martial arts flick in recent memory, doesn't enliven the sleeping genre, and has none of the magic associated with its cherished contributions. We don't get wirefu, sword magic or any of those superlatively goofy elements, while there's more than ample evidence suggesting the project suffers from the same pompous self-importance afflicting previous bores of a similar ilk, to wit Hero and Warriors of Heaven and Earth. It also ends on a glaringly sequelish note, with the hero posse riding into the dusty horizon.
Offensively, Tsui Hark and his minions here kowtow to today's political landscape, fearful of making certain power brokers up north nervous with "subversive" content, hence the cavalier crew head to the capital aiming to politely convince the Emperor to cancel his anti-martial arts edict. Back in the day they'd make the sequel showing them dethroning the bastard amid buckets of blood, but this isn't the place to cry over lost liberties or increased sensitivity. All told, Seven Swords does not justify the long wait we've endured getting to it. It's long, laborious, burdened with extraneous baggage and even has a poorly dubbed over voice track, since half the cast speak Cantonese, the others Putonghua and Korean. What a mess of lost opportunities.

Rating: 5/10

Directed by Tsui Hark
Starring Donnie Yen, Sun Honglei, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Jiang Jingchu, Kim So Yeun
2005, Cantonese/Korean, 154 minutes

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