When the Ching dynasty was established by the Manchurians in China at the beginning of the 1600s, a ban was put on the practice of martial arts by the general population. This ban was set in place to ensure that the new government would have no problems controlling the citizens, but many went against this ruling and practiced the martial arts anyway. A roving gang of mercenaries, lead by the sinister General Fire-Wind, go from village to village decapitating all those who practice martial arts and they spare no one – not the women, not the children. In turn, the bring in the heads of their victims for a reward, and this proves to be a very lucrative business for them indeed.
Fire-Wind and his gang have laid waste to pretty much the entire martial arts practicing population of Northern China save for one last Martial Village. When they get an early warning from Fu, a retired executioner and torturer from the previous dynasty who finds himself taking shelter in the town after being wounded saving a local girl from Fire-Wind's men, they decide to stand up to the army. Wu and Han decide to take off with Fu and head up to Heaven Mountain where We says that they'll be able to find help and it's here that they meet up with an old hermit who is in reality a master swordsman. He has four disciples who he has trained in the various different arts of sword fighting and they just might be strong enough, with help from Wu and Han, to stop Fire-Wind and his minions from laying waste to the village.
The seven warriors descend from the mountain and make their defiant ways known to Fire-Wind, but he's got a few tricks up his sleeve. He begins by poisoning the river that the townspeople have been drinking from, turning them against one another as they become more and more suspicious. They later find out that they trails they were going to take to safety are being marked by someone, adding further fuel to the fires of unrest growing within their ranks. It seems that Fire-Wind's grasp reaches farther than any of them realize and the swordsmen are going to have to find the traitor in their midst and stop Fire-Wind before he kills them all.
Seven Swords starts off extremely strong. The film opens with the slaughter of a village by Fire-Wind and his gang and the fight choreography really does a great job of portraying the brutality of their ways. The action hits fast and furious and this exceptionally violent set piece really gets you pumped up for what's to come next. Fire-Wind's gang look like a punked out version of something from Lord Of The Rings and their merciless kills kick things off with a very dark and dangerous tone. Unfortunately, Tsui Hark can't keep up the pace for the rest of the movie and parts of the film drag, even if they look great while doing so.
The cinematography for this film is extremely impressive. Long shots of the gorgeous countryside in which the movie was shot fill the screen and conjure up the ghost of John Ford (an odd comparison, maybe, but when you see the scope of some of these shots you're reminded of some of his more epic westerns). The colors are deliberately used to build atmosphere and bring life to the movie and the filmmakers do a fine job of making sure that every frame of this movie looks top notch. Sadly, despite the fantastic visuals, the film does get bogged down about forty minutes into its one hundred and fifty three minute running time. The love story that plays out underneath all the backstabbing and political intrigue gets too much time and while one could argue that it adds to the character development, it hurts the pacing of the movie in a big way.
Thankfully, Hark picks up the pace again in the last half hour of the film when the inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil gets to play out. Once again we're treated to some great fight choreography, some cool wuxia combat, and plenty of nice Donny Yen action that should appease his many fans. The finale is strong enough that it makes up for the fact that the storyline is pretty predictable and that the romance aspect of the movie is, quite frankly, dull. The swordplay in the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie is quite fantastic and thankfully the use of CGI isn't quite so obvious here as it has been in other films as of late, and a lot of the stunts look like they rely on good old fashioned wirework rather than computer generated replacements.
In the end, Seven Swords isn't the film that we're all waiting for Hark to make, to return him to form, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Had the movie been able to make up its mind whether or not it wanted to be a romance or an action film and concentrated on one or the other and not tried to play both cards, it would have likely been more successful but as it stands, it's still a good movie despite some lagging middle bits. It doesn't hit the potential that it shows in the opening half hour but it does manage to get enough right to make it worth checking out for fans of the genre.
Delta Mac gives Seven Swords a very strong 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that dose a fantastic job of reproducing the vivid colors and insane amount of detail that have been crammed into the film. The reds look nice and strong without bleeding into the surrounding hues and the black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish. Foreground detail is great, background detail is just as good. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and shadow detail is also quite strong, it never gets murky. There is some edge enhancement and a fair bit of line shimmering evident in the movie (you'll notice most of it along the lines of the actual swords used in the film) but there aren't any compression artifacts and print damage is pretty much a non-issue aside from some very fine and natural looking film grain. All in all, the movie looks very nice on DVD.
You can watch the film in your choice of either a Cantonese or Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix with optional subtitles available in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and English. The film benefits from a very aggressive and very active sound mix that makes excellent use of the rear and surround channels to heighten the intensity of the action scenes and also to provide some very cool directional effects and channel separation. Bass is strong and deep while dialogue remains clean and clear. There are no serious instances of hiss or distortion and aside from one or two lines here and there that were just a little on the low side levels wise, the audio is solid on this set. The optional English subs are clean, clear and pretty easy to read and only contain one or two very minor typographical errors that shouldn't prove too distracting.
The first disc in the set is barebones, but the second disc does contain a wealth of extra features, all of which are subtitled.
First up is a documentary called On The Set which is broken up as a Making Of featurette, five Shooting Diaries, a segment on The Swords And The Swordsmen. The Making Of featurette runs just over seventeen minutes and features some nice interviews with the cast and crew members as well as some very interesting behind the scenes footage and stunt work. They splice some clips from the finished version of the film in here as well and as such there are some mild spoilers so be sure to see the movie itself first. The Shooting Diaries cover pre-production and the production itself. There isn't a lot of dialogue in these, though there is some, and it's more or less behind the scenes footage from the various portions of the shoot. There's plenty of nice stunt work in here and some cool effects work as well as location scouting, training, and other aspects of what went into making the movie. The Swords And The Swordsmen is simply a series of text screens that gives biographical information on each character and their sword specialty.
The Duel : Dragon Vs Transience is an interview with Donny Yen who explains how he was looking forward to working with Tsui Hark again once he announced he was going to make another martial arts film. There's also an interview with Leon Lai who answers more or less the same questions that were asked to Yen, with eerily similar answers.
Rounding out the extra features are a news clip of the Hong Kong Premiere of the film, a couple of trailers for the film, and a sizeable photo gallery consisting of five pictures for each of the nine main stars of the film.
Also worth noting is how nice the package is on this limited edition two disc set. Both discs are housed in a package that looks like an antiquated book, which is in turn covered by a small slipcase. Inside the package, aside from the discs, there's a small envelope that contains some nice reproductions of some character design artwork used in the film.
While some of the more melodramatic aspects of Tsui Hark's Seven Swords are very uneven, the action scenes in the film are top notch and the cinematography is completely beautiful. At almost three hours long it drags in spots, but martial arts fans should find enough to enjoy about the movie to make it worth a look and this two-disc special limited edition release from Delta Mac looks and sounds very nice. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.