Donnie Yen, Lau Ka-Leung, Leon Lai
The opener of last year’s 62nd Venice Film Festival, director Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords is a martial arts epic with a difference. Following on the heels of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the difference is – Seven Swords isn’t a patch on any of them.
In the seventeenth century, the Manchurian Qing Dynasty seeks to stamp out rebel activity and bans all martial arts. Wayward general, Fire-Wind, lays waste to villages unwise enough to hold on to their traditions. Two villagers flee with former executioner-turned-rebel to seek the help of the famed Seven Swordsmen of Mount Heaven. A showdown is inevitable. Less expected is a love-triangle that threatens to defeat the Seven from within.
Based on a kung fu novel, Seven Swords is a famous story in China, worthy of the epic treatment lavished on it here by wunderkind filmmaker Tsui Hark. But something’s amiss. Beginning breathlessly with a seriously violent – and silly - village massacre, Swords doesn’t sustain its pace or tone. Mixing mayhem and myth can work (The Matrix). But it needs a clear head and a steady hand – neither of which Tsui Hark brings to this. Anyone expecting the genre-defining brilliance of Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China movies will be disappointed. Swords feels like a five-hour movie cut to half its size. The result is a more-comical-than-intended hybrid that doesn’t do justice to any of its elements. Playing out like a fairytale version of The Magnificent Seven or, closer, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the biggest plus is that the film looks great. From the get-go, the visuals are those of a master filmmaker – in the vein of Ridley Scott, Scorsese and Spielberg. All of which Tsui Hark is.
Yet Zhang Yimou did the battle-flag brilliance better in Hero. And Hark himself did the martial arts better in his own Once Upon a Time in China 2, which Swords’ climactic fight brings to mind. But even with the legendary Donnie Yen, the action doesn’t take flight. Veteran kung fu star Lau Ka-Leung (Drunken Master 2) and Cantonese singer-cum-actor Leon Lai add good star-quality, there’s not enough for them to do.
Flawed though it is, Seven Swords has enough plus-points to give it a go. Perhaps better to see it on DVD though – when hopefully the deleted scenes and “directors’ cut” will show us the masterpiece this might have been but isn’t.