Jason Pai Piao
Sword Fighting Fantasy Epic
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Seven Swords (2005)
17th May 06
Seven warriors come together to protect a village from a blood thirsty General.
It’s interesting how things come full circle in cinema. Back in the early eighties Tsui Hark burst on to the Hong Kong film scene with the outlandish Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, which coupled the trusted brilliance of established eastern martial arts choreography with pioneering use of wire work and SFX technology to give its characters something of a more superhuman slant. He carried this on through the nineties with the highly regarded and very elegant Once Upon a Time in China trilogy continuing to influence many as he did so to the point where you could argue he played a big part in making CGI enhanced wire work kung fu the norm in contemporary cinema.
Nowadays every fight scene in cinema involves a whoosh, whoosh, spin, double flip, kick, and whoosh. Sound familiar? It should, although at least recently Thailand have stepped up with the likes of Ong-Bak and Born to Fight taking the action movie back to basics. So when is the fantasy epic going to escape from the shadow of Crouching Tiger… and Hero and go the same route? Well, now is the answer to that, and who better to do it than Tsui Hark, one of the guys responsible for all that gravity defying stunt work in the first place.
The plot of this tale takes us back to the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in 17th century China where the new Emperor, sick of rebellious uprisings and so forth, has outlawed martial arts on pain of death. On the Emperor’s behalf a bunch of blood thirsty mercenaries lead by a former army general named Fire-wind are scouring the land supposedly enforcing the new law and returning martial arts’ heads to the Emperor in return for silver, but of course greed overwhelms and they soon end up gathering heads indiscriminately. Carnage ensues.
The story starts with old Fu Qingzhu, a former executioner for the previous dynasty who, after a run in with Fire-wind’s gang at a nearby village, ends up coming to the rescue of Wu Yuanyin from one of the same and inadvertently gets injured in the process. Wu carries him back to her village as her saviour but instead of gratitude one of the villagers recognizes him from his previous profession and they lock him up. While the villagers argue about what to do with him, Fu talks Wu and her friend Han Zhibang to rescue him, which they do, and soon they’re all heading up to the legendary Mount Tian to get help from Master Shadow-glow and his team of legendary swordsman.
The rest you can pretty much see coming, but in a good way if you know what I mean. For by saving Fu, Wu and Han get to join the Swordsmen, even getting their own swords given to them by Master Shadow-glow as he’s the Master’s old friend, and soon they’re all off to protect the village from Fire-winds mercs, before ultimately taking the fight to Fire-wind’s front door step with a sufficiently epic sword fight ending. Along the way there’s a big subplot about the Korean swordsman of the group falling for Fire-wind’s Korean bride (rescue, another rescue, fights along the way) and an equally strung out plotline about a traitor in the village selling them out and poisoning the water. Despite the importance in the plot as a whole, neither story arcs are that much fun, mainly because they do seem to drag out for a little too long. But still, they do give the rest of the cast time to practice their weapons and flesh out the characters so that you know who’s who when the big fights come. And that stuff is invaluable later on, as it’d be a crime to be going into the next battle without knowing your Dragon Sword from your Transience Sword now wouldn't it?
Ultimately it’s the battles themselves which are the real draw of this movie. Slower, dirtier and more realistic is how you’d describe them, with minimal use of wirework and CGI and more focus on tightly choreographed action. The cameras are much closer than usual and as such the sword fights do have more of an air of confusion about them than you’d expect, but the editing and the pacing seem to compensate nicely. The costumes and sets too continue the dirtier, more realistic theme and instead of the vibrant pastel colours of classic Hong Kong cinema, the most common tones in the movie are sandy and potato sack beige, with a few of the bad guys wearing black armour to signify that they’re a bit harder. All the heroes have clothes that look like they’ve seen a bit of travelling and they’re the best dressed ones; the rest of the cast are dressed in rags. The sets also match; the key locations are all dusty barren rural villages or dusty fortresses so no signs of opulence on show at all, a far cry from the grand dojos of the Shaw Brothers era.
But the bottom line is that all it works. The story is engaging, the performances by the key players are commendable and the sword fights are a refreshing change from the norm, particularly an amazing duel near the end played at great pace in a tight stone corridor, something you don’t see in every movie. It’s not the only great fight though, not by a long shot, in fact every martial arts sword fighting movie fan should watch this film just to see the alternative to the wire fu approach of doing a martial arts fantasy. Whether Hong Kong epics will all go this way remains to be seen, although you can never write off the influence of Tsui Hark, so I guess we’ll all have to wait and see, and if this is the start of a realistic revolution then it’s a good start.
Versions The official UK release has just come out, with the following extras. Sadly they don't include the original 4 hour cut which has yet to be released, although they do contain a lot of cut scenes so you might be able to piece it together in your imagination.
# UK version deleted scenes (including the original ending)
# Original version deleted scenes
# 'Forging The Sword: The Making Of Seven Swords' featurette including shooting diaries and production sketches
# Interview Gallery 1: 'nterviews with director Tsui Hark and stars Donnie Yen, Lau Kar-Leung and Leon Lai
# Interview Gallery 2: interviews with stars Duncan Chow, Charlie Yeung, Tai Liwu and Lu Yi
# Interview Gallery 3: interviews with stars Kim So-yeon, Zhang Jingchu and Sun Honglei
# UK teaser trailer
# UK trailer
# UK TV spot
# Hong Kong trailers
# International press