In a spellbinding story of ultimate heroism, love and betrayal - Seven Swords tells the tale of a band of legendary swordsmen drawn together against all odds to protect their village from an evil warlord, hell bent on the merciless massacre of innocent people.
This review is based on my second viewing of Seven Swords. I had no intention of watching it for a second time so comparatively recently after watching it for the first time (tail end of 2006 I think), but so many of the films I've chosen to watch of late have not exactly excited me that much that I just needed to see a film I knew was good. I needed the adrenalin rush, the sense of excitement, the pure entertainment and good quality film violence. Seven Swords satisfied me on all those levels.
I've heard stories about how Tsui Hark's original edit for the film was something like 4 hours long and he had to cut a lot out to reduce it to a reasonable feature running time. For those who get sore back sides sitting in the one place for ages that may be a good thing, and fortunately I still found this 2 hour edit to be great, but I would certainly be extremely interested in seeing the longer edit, if it ever surfaces. As the film currently stands it is a high quality, extremely entertaining martial arts/swordplay film, with a little focus on a few of the characters, but if the longer edit managed to keep the same entertainment levels, not fall victim to feeling overly drawn out and expand on the characters and develop them more, then Seven Swords would truly be a marvel of a film. All I feel this film is lacking is a little more depth in the characters, other than that, it is outstanding.
Seven Swords offered something that I don't recall seeing before in any period Hong Kong film and that was in its portrayal of the bad guys. I don't know whether this was cinematic artistic licence or actually accurate for the time, but the imagining of the bad guys, Fire-Wind's army, is dramatic. You wouldn't have to see any of the film to know that they are the bad guys. With overly pale skin, painted faces, tattoos and the evil scowl to their look, no help is needed in surmising what their role in the film is going to be. While this me be blatant stereotyping in the character, it clearly sets the lines for who is on which side.
A huge score for Seven Swords is in the cinematography and on screen visuals (are they the same thing?). The film opens very artistically, with the talk of blood, and the image being very washed out in colour, except for the reds, highlighting the blood spillage. From there on in, virtually every shot looks polished and is a major highlight in the film. Luckily this great cinematography also extends to the fight scenes. There is little in the way of the "shaky-cam" style filming - the camera being very close to the action and shaking about lots presumably to give the impression of being very involved in the fight - that is used so often in martial arts films, particularly Hollywood ones. Wide angle shots are frequently used, allowing the viewer to actually see what is going on and see the moves that are being performed by the actors and actresses. There are some closer quarters shots but none of them are so close that you are left thinking "What did he just do? Couldn't quite see it..."
Being able to see the fights clearly is one thing, but if the actual fights are a pile of crap, most of us would have preferred not to see them! That is not the case here. Mostly weapons based (swords if you hadn't guessed from the film's title) and with limited, but effective use of wires, the fights in Seven Swords are a joy to watch. Having seen so many martial arts films over the years, I sometimes feel that I've seen most of what there is to see. Then Tony Ja came along and changed that impression for hand-to-hand combat, and here I honestly felt that little rush for seeing fights that weren't just repetitions of other films. With effective use of CG, the fights are able to be really quite violent and a little gory, but not gratuitously so. This freedom clearly opened up possibilities for fights, with severing of limbs being a definite possibility. One of the highlights, however, has to be the final battle between Dragon (Donnie Yen) and Fire-Wind. For me, this topped an already very impressive array of fight scenes, probably because of the brilliantly choreographed "wall fight" between the two. In a very narrow corridor/alley way, the two fight with their swords, while wedging themselves between the two walls. It appears like gravity has no effect on them as they climb up, down and across the walls, all the while wedged in place. Brillaint!
Another aspect that kept all the fight scenes fresh was that each of the main seven characters had a completely different fighting style based on their sword. The styles range from the rugged, heavy handed to the fluid, graceful like, to the acrobatic. When the heroes first come down to the village to save them from Fire-Wind, each character is able to give their own little demonstration of their abilities and this effectively serves as a teaser for the viewer on what each character is able to do.
The action is where the film's focus lies, but that isn't all there is to the film. The story is interesting, based on the backdrop of the Qing Dynasty banning the practice of all martial arts and executing those who continue to practice. While the ending resolves this the situation that the film centred on, it leaves an open door for a continuation on the story, which I believe Tsui Hark is intending to do. There are interesting characters too; however this is where Seven Swords main weakness lies. For some the characters will not nearly be developed enough. Some deleted scenes add more detail and explanation to things stated on Mt. Heaven, the mountain where the sword masters came from, but not everyone will get to see those deleted scenes. While not greatly developed, I did not think anyone was so under developed that the viewer would find the character confusing.
Tsui Hark is heralded as one of the masters of Hong Kong cinema; you just have to look at his filmography to have that confirmed. After turkeys like The Legend Of Zu, it is great to see him back on form again. The latter can also be said for Donnie Yen. I've never doubted that the man has great talent as a martial artist, but it isnít always that he effectively shows this on screen. So many of his films are quite poor, that sometimes I questioned his film choice. For every great film he's in (Hero, OUATIC2, Iron Monkey, Wing Chun), he's also been in a less than great film (Ballistic Kiss, Legend Of The Wolf, Shanghai Affair, Satan Returns). Maybe it is no coincidence that three of those poorer films he directed himself, and that is where his weakness lies. But when used by others in films, the best seems to be brought out in him and his character here is as good as any I've seen him portray, and his fighting also among the best I've seen.
Seven Swords is based on a novel by Liang Yusheng and depending on what rumours you listen to Tsui Hark is apparently planning several more films based on the same works. If they are of a high standard as this one, then I cannot wait.
Audio & Subtitles
The Mandarin DTS track sounds great. Surrounds are used frequently and effectively. Volume levels are well balanced and all speech is clear. The only problem I found with it is that at times the lip-synching seemed a little bit out. I may have just stopped noticing it as the film progressed, but it was a little distracting at first. The difference was only a fraction of a second, but it was a little off putting seeing the characters' mouths say the words at a slightly different time to me hearing them.
The subtitles were flawless in grammar and spelling.
Hong Kong Legends are largely renowned for their good quality film transfers and Seven Swords is no exception. The print is free from dirt and speckles, colours are bold where needed and well produced throughout, grain levels are minimal and detail levels are high. The film looked very good.
DVD & Extras
I hadn't realised this when I bought the DVD, but this is a 2 DVD set, with a host of extras. The main one is probably the interview gallery. It features interviews with Tsui Hark, all seven of the title cast, the man behind Fire-Wind and two other actresses who play a significant part in the film. The questions asked are largely about their thoughts and feelings about the film and offer some good insights. However a little of the repetition in questioning got me a little bored by the 10th interview! There is a promotional gallery which features trailers and press footage for the film, then a section called "Forging The Sword" which houses the Making Of featurette, which is definitely a good watch. Also in this section are Shooting Diaries, which are more of a space filler I think, as some contain footage used in the Making Of and don't offer a great deal more. There are 2 deleted scenes sections, one for the original version and one for the UK version. To me this implies that the UK version differs from the HK version, but I don't think this is actually the case, making me think this naming convention is more a marketing thing than anything else. Lastly there is the usual selection of trailers for other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia titles.
As you can probably tell from the review I quite like this film. I'd probably go as far as saying it is one of the best films I've seen in a while. It's rating narrowly misses out on a top 10 position as I don't think it is quite as good as the Directors' Cuts of Hero or Fearless, but it is only the smallest of margins behind.