I remember waiting impatiently for Seven Swords to finally come out. Amidst all the hype and expectations -- Tsui Hark returns! Lau Kar-Leung’s final performance! -- and wild predictions of media saturation, the actual product seemed overdue. A television serial with a different cast debuted around the same time as the film, comic books, online RPGs, a sextet of sequels, and other media projects rumored to already be in production. Unfortunately, Tsui Hark’s return to Chinese language film making faced a rather frigid public reception.
The critical response was largely indifferent. Asian audiences didn’t rush out to see the film as the investors and Tsui had publicly predicted; Western audiences generally didn’t see it until the DVD releases, and compared it unfavorably to Zhang Yimou’s films, which were still fresh, or at least seemed so to some.
This was supposed to be Tsui Hark’s return to prestigious, quality film making after a disastrous turn in Hollywood, and a string of hit-and-miss films. It was supposed to be a nearly four hour epic that would finally return the uniquely Hong Kong flavor to the wuxia genre, which, whether you like the older HK films or not, had become redundant under the auspices of “respectable” mainland directors like Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogeng. It had an awesome cast, including old-school actors like Lau Kar-Leung, Chi Kuan-Chun, Jason Pai Piao, as well as brand new talent like Tai Li-Wu, a Peking Opera acrobat Tsui recruited specifically for this film. Lau Kar-Leung (!) choreographed the action scenes. Kenji Kawaii provided the score. Investors from three different countries poured money into it.
What happened? An overabundance of confidence. Nobody wanted to distribute a four hour film, to probably nobody’s surprise but Tsui’s. A truncated version eventually made it to theaters, and eventually to DVD. Whatever Tsui Hark intended, we saw only half of it. Indifference and disappointment ensued. The many rumored projects dissipated into the ether. The internet declared that Tsui Hark had lost “it.” Whatever “it” is.
I watched Seven Swords again today. It starts with natural, heroic beauty, valiant swordsmen racing across the frozen plateaus of Mt. Heaven, fanfare swelling as it transitions to the opening credits. What follows is not a story based on Liang Yusheng’s Seven Swordsmen from Mount Heaven, but the highlights of such an adaptation.
A basic synopsis might go something like, “besieged village recruits seven swordsmen in possession of magical weapons to defend themselves from bounty hunters, after an imperial edict makes them criminals for the practice of martial arts.” And the storyline certainly follows that all too familiar framework. But it is in the nature of wuxia films to be as convoluted as the novels they adapt, and Seven Swords, as loose an adaptation as it is, does exactly that. Love triangles, former political and familial alliances and treasonous intentions -- it’s all a bit complicated. With seven major characters, a two hour running time doesn’t provide much opportunity for plot and characterization and visual splendor and visceral action to serve each of the main characters and all the side characters.
Case in point: the “Joy-Luck” scene. In this scene, Han Zhibang and Mulong release the village’s horses, and run off so that the old and stubborn horse named “Joy-Luck” won’t follow them. It’s an odd sequence, as the music gets real sappy and the camera lingers on the old horse searching for masters that abandoned him. It seemingly pops out of nowhere, as the horse never figures into any previous scene. But an observant viewer will note that Han is always in the stable when he’s in the village. One assumes that in the full movie, Han’s role as the operator of the stable, and the caretaker of Joy-Luck figured into his characterization in some meaningful way. What the audience actually gets is an emotional climax without any buildup. No foreplay; it’s over. I feel cheated.
It is true that many wuxia films, including the ones that earned critical praise, are much too expository. Their characters stand around and talk about what’s happening, and what happened, and what will happen. It’s the barrier between me and Chinese television serials. Seven Swords is opaque, which is no better. All of the guts have been taken out, and what we see of the finer points is infuriating because it looks potentially interesting. Fu Qinzu was once a violent executioner, now trying to atone for his sins. That’s cool, but we never see how Fu has changed, much less what affected him so much that he went from ruthless executioner to avenging holy-warrior. The irrepressibly horny Han and Yufeng, daughter of the village chief, have a romance interrupted by the arrival of Chu Zhaonon who draws Yufeng’s attention with his martial ability and emo brooding. Just what or who is Master Shadow Glow, the crafter of the seven swords?
The audience doesn’t need everything stated outright, but we shouldn’t have to come up with out own explanations to make up for the deficiencies of the plot.
Making a four hour movie, intended to be seen in one part, is mad folly. But I think, maybe, the full version works. Bey Logan claimed it did on his commentary track for the Dragon Dynasty DVD. And what is good about Seven Swords is really good. The production design, unlikely and comic-bookish as it is, looks great. The cinematography captures the rough beauty of northwestern China. Fight scenes utilize too much wire-work, I think, given the attempt at realism set up in other parts of the film, but there are some great moments, particularly during the finale. Speaking of which, the swordplay during the finale is among the best action this decade, reminsicent of the finale to Lau Kar-Leung's Martial Club, if you can believe it.
And mention must be made of Sun Honglei, who, as the villainous Fire-Wind, devoured the scenery and walked away with the film. That guy is clearly having a great time, and really makes the most of his character. Also, many of the actors (Pai Piao, Chi Kuan Chun, Charlie Yeung) can be seen in the background of various scenes set in the village, performing menial tasks. Jason Pai Piao gives a great performance in one scene, and fulfills the role of an extra in the next. The lack of ego is humbling. It makes Leon Lai's consistent non-presence especially glaring. Why does anybody cast that guy in anything? He was equally awful in An Empress and the Warriors. Donnie Yen might not be great, but he's at least trying his damndest to act.
Tsui Hark has always divided people. I’m probably in the minority simply by having no especially strong feelings about him. If a director’s cut of Seven Swords shipped into stores I would buy it. It’s not a good movie, but it’s an interesting failure. In fact, I kind of like it. Don’t forget, I like Green Snake far more than Hero, and I’m looking forward to Tsui’s upcoming Di Renjie with Andy Lau, because I never learn. Your taste probably differs.