Along with John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Wong Kar Wai, Tsui Hark was one of the figureheads of 1980's and early 90's Hong Kong cinema. They were trend setters and style definers. From the mid 90's to the millennium, their careers took on some drastic changes, some for for the better, some worse. Tsui Hark was one of the more commercial of the bunch, but his career really took a downturn from lukewarm reception in Hong Kong (Time and Tide) to slumming US/Van Damme numbers (Double Team).
For Tsui Hark, two of his most recent films, Zu Warriors and Seven Swords, had initial buzz that was hopeful. Maybe, just maybe, he could recapture his form. Zu was a mess, a soulless, fx overwrought muddle with none of the charm of his earlier fantasy work. An epic adaptation of a famous wuxia novel, Seven Swords had a lot working in its favor: a solid cast, great budget, popular source material, and, right out the gate, Tsui Hark announced multi-media ambitions including a sister-tv series and planned sequels. Then, word came that Hark's first cut of the film was just over four hours and he had to whittle the film down to two and a half hours. Worries began. Would the film get mangled irrevocably in the process?
The source material, "The Seven Swordsmen from Mt. Tian" is part of a series of adventure novels by Liang Yusheng, a series that also includes the tale "The Bride with White Hair." The setting is the Ching Dynasty in 17th century feudal China. A ban on all martial arts has been decreed and there is bounty on the heads of anyone who practices the fighting arts. A warlord named Fire-Wind (Sun Hong-Lei- The Road Home, Zhou Yu's Train) takes advantage by sending out his minions to ravage entire villages, often taking everyone's head, woman and children too, just to increase his profits. It is during one such raid that they are counter attacked by one lone man, Fu (legendary performer/choreographer/director Lu Chia-Liang- Master Killer, 18 Legendary Weapons of China, Drunken Master 2), an old, former executioner now out to do good and make amends for his former bloodletting.
Severely wounded, Fu barely escapes the fracas with his life. Yaon Yin (Charlie Yeung- Fallen Angels, New Police Story), a young girl from the nearby martial village, helps him and takes him to her town where Fu warns them that they are next on Fire-Winds path of destruction. The villagers peg Fu as a former executioner and insist he's probably lying. Yaon Yin does not doubt him. With her childhood friend Han (Yi Lu) helping, Yaon Yin escapes into the night with Fu, who guides the pair to Mount Heaven, a sacred place where the most virtuous swordsmen hone their skills for when they are needed.
The swordsmen arrive back at martila village just in time to defend the it from Fire-Wind's minions first raid. Fu takes the proactive approach of going straight to Fire-Wind's fortress and delivering an ultimatum, either disband his army and back off or suffer the consequences. Of course, this is just a ruse, a distraction to keep Fire-Wind and crew occupied while the swordsmen sketch the layout of his compound, give laxatives to his horses, and burn his food supply. The reclusive, intense, and most powerful of the bunch, Korean swordsman
Chu (Donnie Yen- Iron Monkey, In the Line of Duty 4, Blade 2) rescues a fellow Korean, Green Pearl (So-yeon Kim) who is Fire-Wind's troubled concubine-slave.
The rest of the film, the bulk, plays out with the swordsmen and the villagers making their way across the desert, hiding in the mountains, figuring out their next move, and hoping to find Fire-Wind's cache of loot. Suspicions abound, for instance, one swordsman, Yun Chong (Leon Lai- Comrades: A Love Story, Three), is cold and distant, seemingly begrudging of the villagers. The largest kink in the group rears its head after a river poisoning and the reveal that someone has been marking their trail, so it is obvious that there is a traitor amongst them.
I'm reticent to lob too much criticism at the film because essentially, all the sore spots appear to be the result of the massive amount of editing the film underwent. So, I can say, the film has its marred bits of ill-defined character and butchered story timeline, but I can also imagine most of those problems would be lessened with a longer cut. So, basically, you can assume this is compromise film, still fairly good, but perhaps not what was intended. And yes, Tsui Hark does deserve the brunt of the blame for the films problems because he should have realized long before filming that he had a massive problem on his hands in terms of how much story he was going to tell with so little time to actually tell it.
When it comes to the actual characters in the group, really only Chu and Yun Chong have any sort of depth. As the wizened leader you'd think Fu would have a lot more development. Han and Yaon Yin just serve as the newbies to the circle, simple villagers now adjusting to their roles as heros. The remaining two swordsmen are relegated to the basics: the guy with the hat and the bald guy. But again, you can tell this is a result of bits being left on the cutting room floor. Even in one moment in the finale (making it way to late in the narrative), brief flashbacks show the swordsmen talking to one another during the trip, revealing hints to their back ground and personality. These instances were most likely entire scenes that were hacked and shifted and became, in this cut of the film, teasing glimpses of character.
The most glaring bit of editing for its "what the Hell is going on?" effect on the narrative is the sequence where Han and Yaon Yin travel with the wounded Fu to Mt. Heaven. It is almost a Godfrey Ho bad garble where one moment they are in the desert, the next freezing cold and lost in the mountains, then the wham-bam of a meteor shower and an avalanche, then abruptly cutting to the trio perfectly fine and safe, at Mt. Heaven where there is a rushed bit of intro to the swordmen and the handing out of weapons to Han and Yaon Yin. You can sense the editing was just to get things on their way, but it doesn't help with establishing the swordsmen very well or explaining why Han and Yaon Yin deserve to be given these unique, tricky swords but are not given lessons on their use.
Heroic swordplay films go all the way back to China's silent film era, but it saw its biggest surge in popularity in the 60's just before the dawn of the kung fu film. Of course, these days we have seen the post-Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon era which includes Zhang Yimou's Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, and Chen Kaige's The Promise. While those films beared a more somber, dramatic, often philosophical air akin to the classic swordplay films of King Hu, Tsui Hark's Seven Swords aims for the down and gritty tone of a Chang Cheh swordplay flick and also appears to have cribbed some style points from Korea's Musa: the Warrior. You'll find no splashes of gorgeous technicolor and eye-popping costuming in Seven Swords. Instead, the look is that of the drab desert and cold mountains and attire is basic browns and beiges for the villagers or harsh grays and bible blacks for the villains. Likewise the action, is fast and violent, and the fantastical elements, while present, are abrupt and powerful instead of fluid and graceful. The highlight finale finds Tsui Hark and Donnie Yen cribbing from their Once Upon a Time In China 2 hallway action set-up. Though I've watched that scene seems like a hundred times, they do a nice job returning to familair territory with some new invention.
The DVD: Weinstein Company
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The print is very tight and clean with nary a speck in sight. As I said before, the film has a very rugged look, and the colors, while understated and often desaturated, are appropriately rendered. Nice sharpness and good grain level. The contrast is nice and deep and appears to be a bit richer than some of the screencaps for the other DVD releases that I've seen online. Technically here are some slight compression issues, like some slight noise in a few scenes that will be apparent on high end systems.
Sound: DTS Cantonese or Mandarin tracks. 5.1 Surround Cantonese, Mandarin, or English tracks. Optional English or Spanish subtitles.
First, one has to be aware that some of the actors were dubbed. The films primary language is Mandarin and some of the actors more comfortable with Cantonese post dubbed their lines, or in Lui Chia Liang's case it appears another actor did all of his dialogue. Donnie Yen also spoke Korean lines on set but post dubbed them later to clean up the rough spots. The subtitle timing had a few instances where it was way too rushed.
The mixes here are all quite good. Robust action fx and a pounding core. I was actually less than impressed with composer Kenji Kawai's (Ring, Ghost in the Shell, Dark Water) basic orchestration, repetitive rhythm action score, but it still has nice response in the sound mix. The action doesnt disappoint and offers plenty of punch to the surround speakers.
Extras: Commentary by author Bey Logan and director Tsui Hark.
A second disc contains: Deleted and Extended Scenes (23:27). ---
Behind the Scenes: Prelude to a Dream (5:28), Battle Plans (4:29), Love and War (5:31), Vertical Limit (5:29). -- Interviews: Tsui Hark (45:11), Donnie Yen (25:43), Zhang Jing-Chu (17:58), Duncan Lai (25:50). -- Making Of Featurette (18:18). -- Storyboard Gallery. ---
US and HK Trailers, plus 4 TV Spots.
It is a good mix of extras, which, save for the commentary, appear to be cobbled from the two HK and the UK DVD releases. I listened to the commentary in a few spots (around 30 mins total), and it seemed to have decent flow. The featurettes are all informative, delivering a nice look into various aspects of the production. The two interviews that stand out are the Tsui Hark and Donnie Yen segments, especially the former. Only the Deleted Scenes are a bit of a disappointment. There are seven scenes, three deleted, and four extended/alternate. Most of them are just action-oriented cuts and since they did not make it into post-production sound fx, they play here with only a basic music track as the sole audio.
Conclusion: As a wuxai fan and a post 1995 Tsui Hark doubter, I was pleasantly surprised with Seven Swords, a decent edition into a long cannon of heroic swordplay films. Yes, the film is not without its obvious flaws but there is more than enough style, action, and wuxai standard elements on display to make for an entertaining film. The DVD is a well-rounded presentation with good image and sound and a nice offering of insightful, interesting extras.