Seven Swords has been greeted with some of the most savage reviews I’ve read of almost any Hong Kong production, so much so that I wondered if people were simply trying not to look unhip. This film was, in the eyes of the critics, meant to be the triumphant return of director Tsui Hark to a variety of Asian film he helped refine and bring to the West — the wu xia, a genre best known to American audiences through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero or House of Flying Daggers. The savagery was, well, savage: “He blew it,” one critic wrote. “The film is a mess.” I suspected the mess in question may be highly subjective, a case of people expecting one thing and getting another.
And the more of other people’s reviews I read, the more it seems to tilt that way. Critics seemed to go out of their way to find things to complain about: the cinematography was all wrong, the fight scenes didn’t make a lick of sense, the acting was inconsistent, the hairstyles looked goofy. Some rose to the film’s defense by claiming the original 4-hour version of the movie had to be trimmed to two and a half hours for the sake of earning a release at all, and that we should not be so harsh to what is essentially a murdered film. I don’t subscribe to any of these views, and I most certainly don’t support the view that the film is a wretched mistake and deserves to be burned at sea.
Fire-Wind and his murderous band enforce the nationwide edict against martial arts with brutal efficiency.
The title — and the story — invite comparison with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, of course. Swords isn’t quite that good (few movies are, let’s face it), but it is genuinely entertaining from beginning to end, and also contains a great many characters that we come to care about. All of the fight scenes in the world don’t matter if they’re not happening to people we feel anything for, and Swords is mindful of that. It has the same sweep and grandeur as an earlier mainland-China epic I enjoyed, Musa, and an even broader cast to draw on for its many emotional moments. What it might lack in cohesion it more than makes up with ambition and narrative force.
Hark has directed some of the best and most idiosyncratic films from Hong Kong — the Once Upon a Time in China series, the infamous Don’t Play with Fire, the funny and disturbing We’re Going to Eat You, and many more. His nihilistic redux of The One-armed Swordsman, The Blade, remains my favorite, and curiously enough that one that seems closest in spirit to Seven Swords in some ways. Swords is not really about the action, but about how violence and living in violent times shapes people’s spirits, for better and worse.
The story opens during a grim period in China’s history when the practice of martial arts has been outlawed. Those found violating the edict are summarily executed. The mercenary Fire-Wind (Honglei Sun) and his band of killers track down and kill violators of the law, but pad out their death rolls by slaughtering innocents as well. One of their intended victims steals several name tags from the dead, is wounded, escapes, and flees to a village where the practice of martial arts continues in secret. He is recognized by one of the villagers as having been a tyrant in the previous dynasty; now, he is desperately trying to make amends for his earlier acts by fighting against the edict.
The villagers don’t believe him at first, but the girl he saves from Fire-Wind’s band sides with him. Slowly a collection of heroes comes together from their actions: the girl herself, the one seeking redemption who now refuses to kill, a former Korean slave, and a motley of other folk. They assemble a cache of weapons, return to the village, repulse Fire-Wind and his men, and set out to stop him at all costs. Fire-Wind, of course, takes all this quite personally — especially when they steal his woman and trash his fortress.
Swords features more than a few interesting a compelling female characters, unlike most movies of this kind.
Several detailed subplots weave through the main story. The most compelling of them involves one of the swordsmen (an excellent Donnie Yen), the escaped slave, liberating the enemy leader’s concubine (Kim So Yuen). She is Korean as well, but instead of feeing immediate empathy with her savior, she despises him — after all, where she was before, she at least knew what to expect from her captors. This whole storyline is strong enough that it could have been the centerpiece of a less ambitious film, and it also provides another level of parallel with the movie Musa — the princess in that story is similarly unwilling to accept the help of her rescuers. Her feelings towards them change, with time, though: “Before, I was not afraid to die because I had nothing — now that I have something, I’m terrified.”
Of the other characters, Fire-Wind, the leader of the mercenaries, stands out among the most — partly because he’s almost the opposite of what we would expect. He’s almost laid-back, reticent, except when he must demonstrate his authority. Sometimes he giggles weirdly — as if drunk on his own power, or maybe astounded that he’s been able to get as far as he has. His backstory with the concubine is developed through inserts and flashbacks, and even though he never loses his stature as the story’s main villain he becomes that much more rounded. In his own vulgar, incompetent way, he does love her, even if his love is entirely selfish and self-important, and it hurts him profoundly to lose her.
Fire-Wind's Korean concubine becomes a key character, suspected of treason and distrustful of her liberators.
The film looks lustrous, and that seems to be due both to expert cinematography on the set and judicious use of digital post-production techniques. More and more movies are being shot on film and then immediately transferred to a digital format (a process known as DI, or digital intermediate) so they can be edited and manipulated without the tedium of making multiple prints in the lab. Swords has some scenes where the color has been heavily desaturated save for one or two key objects — the blood on someone’s face, or the red of a banner in the wind — and the effect is as powerful and grim as it should be. It never looks flashy or self-important.
Exotic weapons are a staple of action movies, and Swords has more than its fair share. Heroes and villains both come decked out with a dizzying array of implements: I counted not one but two trick swords, a scythe, a set of flying guillotines that double as shields, an unfinished sword that nevertheless still packs a wallop, and chains with razor-sharp sickles at the end for tearing an enemy’s head off from down the street. That’s not even the whole lot — there are others that come and go so fast they barely have time to register — although in a movie where the weapons are not really the heroes, that’s mercifully not as big a problem.
The film's lush look is a careful combination of conventional cinematography and post-production digital work.
By the time we get to the the final fight, given extra lift by Kenji (Avalon) Kawai’s invigorating score, the weapons are hardly the point all; it’s the needs of their wielders that matter more. The weapons are just a means to an end, as is the sometimes-exaggerated, comic-bookish action — a staple for many Asian action films, and used here for a characterization device as much as for the spectacle. At one point a store of gunpowder is in danger of exploding and killing one of the main villains; one of the heroes spares him by slicing open the floor itself to dampen the fire. If we didn’t already know he valued life that much, it would have merely seemed self-indulgent instead of heroic. The film is also wise enough, unlike most action cinema, to understand that evil doesn’t magically vanish when you kill all the bad guys: the imperial edict has more power than any one gang of brigands.
There are moments in Swords when the transitions seem abrupt, possibly due to the shortening of the film, but I never got the feeling the film was lost at sea. The butchery could have been infinitely worse — consider, for instance, the way Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America was cut to utterly incoherent shreds for its American theatrical release. What we do have of Swords is lush and powerful and willing to bend many of the genre’s rules to make its points. It may not work in the way its critics wanted, but on its own terms, it works extremely well. In fact, it might be that much more accessible to non-genre audiences precisely because it’s not as slavishly cast in the mold of its predecessors.
I mentioned earlier that Swords has some affinity with Hark’s The Blade, a deeply fatalistic story in which human violence seems all-encompassing and inescapable. Swords is a touch more heroic, but there’s a similar grim determination underscoring everything, one which brings the heroism down to a more human level. It’s cynical enough to know that heroism will always be limited by the constraints of the real world, but not quite cynical enough to believe heroism is never possible. At one point Fire-Wind surveys his band of killers and remarks, “Yesterday they were lovely children. Today they’ve become beasts.” He says it with pride. The people who are fighting him have a rather different feeling about their children. That’s not the only thing that sets them apart from the bad guys, but it’s certainly the most important one.