Leading into its release in the fall of 2005 Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords was one of the most anticipated films of the year. One that many felt could snap the Hong Kong industry out of its slump. But to call the public response on its release mixed is generous. While its supporters are in the minority they are a rabid lot but most came out strongly against the film and never the twain did meet. For an example you need only look at the response to our own very critical reviews of the film following its appearance at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s the closest to an all out flame war this site has ever had.
Having been one of those with very high hopes for the film the critical lambasting it received prompted me to put it aside for a while, to give my expectations time to adjust so I could try to approach it with a blank slate. And having now taken a look at the film I believe both extremes are over stating their case. The film has a lot going for it and is certainly stronger than much of Hark’s more recent work. That said it is positively begging for a re-edit.
At this point I am going to assume that most of those interested in Hark’s wuxia epic are already familiar with the basic plot line and will give it only the most cursory attention. The Emperor, fearing rebellion, has declared the practice of martial arts illegal and placed a bounty on the heads of anyone practicing the fighting arts. The high bounty placed on the martial artists heads has led to the army engaging in state sanctioned massacres, slaughtering entire villages for profit. When the army begins to move in on a remote farming village the villagers sent for help to Mt. Tian, and five legendary martial artists bearing seven super powered swords. Two are given to villagers – respond to protect the village.
In many ways Seven Swords can be read as Hark’s reaction against the new wave of high art martial arts epics. The film is, in every way. An attempt to return to the 80’s styles that built the genre and Hark’s reputation. The martial arts feature the heavily wire assisted style of classic wuxia film. Delivered by a pair of the time period’s biggest stars: old school legend Lau Kar Leung and frequent Hark collaborator Donnie Yen. It’s a dirtier, grittier style than the work commonly done now. And Hark proves he’s still got what it takes on that front. With Yen’s closing sequence standing with his very best work. Even the shooting style looks back to the classics with Hark desaturating the colors to simulate an aged film stock. Interesting actors, large scale, well executed martial arts, so where’s the problem?
There are two, and I believe they are tightly linked by the aforementioned editing problem. Hark’s initial cut of the film famously clocked in at around the four hour mark and he had to cut the film roughly in half for theatrical release. I believe both of the major problems in the film can be traced back to this.
Hark has a very large cast of characters to deal with here and he simply can’t do them all justice with the short run time. Which leads to our first major problem: major continuity errors and major players who simply appear and disappear, seemingly into midair. Though I can’t say this for certain, not having been in the editing room. It appears as though in his quest to cut time Hark has chosen to rely on his core audience’s familiarity with the very famous – in China – source material and cut out virtually all of the introductory material. Characters simply appear without introduction or explanation and at several points references are made to events – major plot points sometimes. That all of the major characters are obviously aware of but simply never appear on screen.
It means that the film’s internal logic is broken and flawed. The film occasionally lurching from event to event with the onus on the audience to figure out what’s just happened and why. Hark makes the problem worse with some odd choices. Choosing to include some major side notes that add nothing to the central narrative while omitting other major events. For example, we get an extended sequence of Han. The villager turned swordsman, releasing his favorite horse into the wild but Hark omits the Duke’s siege of the villager’s mountain hideout in its entirety. Odd, to say the least.
The second major flaw, one commented on in many reviews I have read. Stems directly from the widespread omission of back-story. Because Hark has chosen not to introduce his characters. Because he gives us nothing to really hang our opinions of them on. We simply don’t have enough reasons to care. Because he doesn’t properly establish his characters they come across as cold and passionless in most cases. Something many have put down to poor acting which I think is unfair to Hark’s cast who are generally strong. The real problem is that Hark hasn’t given us enough to really invest in.
Seven Swords (That Kiem Ha Thien Son) as it stands is simply not as good as the Hark faithful would have you believe. But it’s not the train wreck many have claimed, either. It has many strong elements muddled by the radical chop job Hark was forced to do on his own film to get it in theaters. Happily, though, he’ll get the chance to restore the removed footage with his intended director’s cut. And will hopefully correct the flaws at that time.
Tsui Hark (The Blade) adapted his massive martial arts epic Seven Swords (AKA Qi Jian) from Liang yu-Sheng’s popular novel Seven Swordsmen from Mount Tian.The story opens in the 1660s, following the implementation of China’s (Manchu) Qing dynasty. To quell possible nationalist uprisings. The emperor issues a decree forbidding the use of martial arts, and guarantees decapitation for anyone who violates that order. A class of bounty hunters quickly formed to enforce the law and collect 600 pieces of silver for each violator. The most massive and domineering of the warriors is the bald, muscular Fire-Wind (Sun Honglei). A bellicose and volatile creature who lives in an elephantine tentlike dwelling on a hill. This walking terror selects Martial Village, a hamlet in northwestern China, as his next assignment.
Meanwhile, in Martial, two young adults. Wu Yuanyin (Charlie Young) and her ex-beau (Han Zhibang) rescue an old executioner. Fu Qingzhu (Lau Kar-leung) who foresees the coming wrath and acknowledges the necessity of pulling in the mythical ‘Warriors of Mt. Tian’ to fight Fire-Wind and his cronies. The four warriors summoned by Fu include Chu Zhaonan (Donnie Yen). And Yang Yunchong (Leon Lai), who dramatically increase the tension and bloodshed when the former develops a crush on one of Fire-wind’s hostages. Green Pearl (Kim So-yeon) and decides to kidnap her – sending Fire-wind through the roof.
The critically-worshipped Hark reportedly cut two versions of this film (including a 2 1/2 hour cut and a 3-hour cut). And demonstrated incredible confidence in Qi Jian by planning it as the initial installment in a massive series of multimedia sequels. Including a 74-part television series, an online video game, comics, and five additional films. The picture itself testifies to this, with the setup for a sophomore installment in its conclusion. Qi Jian, however, did lackluster box office when it opened in the Far East in July 2005. Making the follow-ups less than certain.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Classics
Directed By: Hark Tsui
Written By: Hark Tsui, Cheung Chi-Sing, Chun Tin-nam, Hun Tin Naam
On Disc/Streaming: Jan 16, 2007
Runtime: 151 minutes
Studio: Mandarin Films