At the beginning of the 17th century, the beginning of the Qing Dynasty when the Manchu took over the country, the ruling governments decree the practice of martial arts as illegal. Those who break the law are killed, a reward paid for their death. The evil Wind Fire (an excellent Sun Hung-Lei, who steals the screen every time he is on it), a military leader from the previous dynasty, now roams the countryside with his army enforcing the new law and collecting loads of rewards by basically killing everyone that crosses his path. Amoral and cruel, he even has his army of super-killers kill women and children. But a retired executioner from the previous dynasty keeps crossing his path and stealing the names of the dead, thus preventing him from collecting his rewards. Injured from a fight, the man takes refuge at the next town that Wind Fire plans to "harvest." Recognized as a former executioner, he flees with the townspersons Wu Yuanyin (Charlie Yeung) and Han Zhiban (Yi LU) for Mount Heaven to gather some sword-wielding disciples of Master Shadow Glow (Jingwu Ma). Now seven, they return to protect the people from Wind Fire’s army… After a fight at Wind Fire’s camp—which they illogically end early after virtually wiping the troops out—they retreat for safety with the townspeople in tow. But there is an unknown traitor in their midst that both marks the path for Wind Fire to follow and also poisons the drinking water. When Chu Zhao Nan (a grumpy Donnie Yen) does some solo action and gets caught by the enemies, the remaining six return to save him…
Tsui Hark, a one-man Hong Kong factory of films, has directed an untold number of films since his debut in 1979 with the overstuffed oddity The Butterfly Murders (trailer), a list of films that is easily doubled when including those that he supposedly only produced. In a career that has spanned over 30 years now, the quality of his prodigious product of the films in which he is credited as director has ranged from holistically masterful — Peking Opera Blues (1986 / trailer) — to stylistically fabulous but empty — Time and Tide (2000 / trailer) — to highly disappointing — A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991 / trailer) — but it is debatable whether he has ever really made unwatchable film (though he has produced more than one, including Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters [2002 / trailer]).
This film, his 2005 contribution to the classic Japanese genre of Wuxia as well as the opening film to the Venice Film Festival of that year, is hardly a total dud, but it also a far cry from what the man can produce when he is top form. Based on Yusheng Liang's novel Seven Swordsmen from Mountain Tian, the movie is best described as Tsui Hark Lite — occasional glimpses of what the man can do shines through now and again, but not enough to keep the viewer enthralled for the entire 153 minutes the DVD version requires. Oddly enough, however, as much as the film comes across as being too long, it also almost comes across as being too short: the film itself seems padded, but it also seems superficial in regard to character development. The plot development often seems arbitrary, and there are way too many interesting and possibly interesting characters that are left ciphers, including some of those that yield the seven swords of the title. Thus, a film that is obviously meant to be monumental comes across oddly small, as if it were actually made for the small screen and not the large one.
Perhaps the problem lies in part with that over the recent years, as the production levels of Wuxia films have increased alongside the international attention they are given, so many top notch films — such Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 / trailer), House of Flying Daggers (2004 / trailer) and Hero (2002 / trailer), to name the most obvious — have been released that viewer expectations have grown quicker than both Hark’s budgets and his narrative skills. The Seven Swords simply seems incredible retro: had it released 10-15 years ago, the film could have easily made a fan of this type of film cream their jeans, but now, in naughts of the New Century, it is decidedly mediocre. Whereas Hark’s best films tend, during group viewings, to induce little more than sounds of awe or enjoyment, The Seven Swords easily induces people to start conversations and ignore the screen, or even go for a new beer without putting the film on pause—not good.
Not to say that the film is a total loss. The first mass extermination is fun, as are the visual appearance and weapons of the (sorely under-used) lead bad minions, and the film does have two excellent fight scenes: the first attack on Wind Fire’s stronghold shows Hark’s old fire, as does the really excellent sword fight between Wind Fire and Chu Zhao Nan within a narrow stone hallway at the end of the film. It just that not only does much of what comes in-between fail to engage the viewer, but the plot development often seems questionable or illogical (like the seven retreating after the raid of Wind Fire's stronghold when they basically have the full upper-hand and are easily obliterating his men—including most of his super-killers).
Tsui Hark may have produced or directed many a must-see during his career, but The Seven Swords is not one of them. And though the film ends in such a way that leaves an opening for a sequel—Tsui Hark is fond of sequels—in the case of this movie, one is truly not needed.