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In early 17th century China the Manchurian emperor of the new Ching Dynasty imposes a ban on the practice of all martial arts. When one martial artist escapes a brutal siege to a small village, and nearly mortally wounded, he asks to be taken high into the snowy mountains. There, five master swordsmen agree to break the law and save the village from an impeding onslaught by a corrupt imperial enforcer. The five become seven when they recruit the two townsfolk that brought the wounded swordsman to their doorstep.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition
Tsui Hark might be the most important creative force behind modern Hong Kong cinema. If not number one, he's pretty damn close. His work as director and producer is reads like a history book on the subject.

His big directorial break-through, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, is one of my personal favourite films, and lead to other mystically enhanced kung fu epics like the Ronny Yu directed The Bride with White Hair and Ching Siu-Tung's Chinese Ghost Story (which was produced by Hark). He produced John Woo's break-through film, A Better Tomorrow, which helped to usher in the late '80s/early '90s gun-fu revolution. Wushu fans the world over will probably love the man most for his work on the genre defining Once Upon a Time in China series, which made Jet Li the biggest name in martial arts (though I've always been a bigger fan of the Hark produced Iron Monkey myself)

Like most of Hong Kong's big stars and directors, Hark's Western output is awful. In fact, it's beyond awful. Woo at least has the over-the-top silly-fest Face-Off under his belt, Li has the disappointing but entertaining Unleashed, and Yu made two ultimate horror guilty pleasures, Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason. Hark's Hollywood apex is Double Team, which stars a has been Jean-Claude Van Damme and a never was Dennis Rodman. It's easily one of the worst films I've ever seen, it isn't even 'fun-bad'. Even Hark's Chinese output has been lacking of late, which is why Seven Swords was such an exciting prospect – a return to epic form for the master.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition
The first thing there is to say about Seven Swords is it is beautiful. The opening battle is eye-popping in its restrained use of colour, in that the entire scene is almost black and white with vibrant reds. The camera sweeps epically through the gargantuan set, and the gratuitous use of slow motion is divine. The rest of the film never quite lives up to these overly expressionistic beginnings, but is still quite often breathtaking, and most importantly, epic. It's not quite up to the new high standards recently set by Yimou Zhang for period piece beauty, but a virtual revelation compared to Hark's other recent work.

So as to not be in direct competition with recent popular wushu epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, Hark has infused Seven Swords with some much-needed pulp and fantasy influences. Though Zhang and Ang Lee can't be accused of complete historical accuracy in their epics, Hark's creations are more attuned to those of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain than those of actual historical China. The colourful villains have themed weapons, each entirely impractical, but viscerally entertaining. The best is the female assassin, who might as well be Darth Maul's sister (in appearance and fate), whose appearance and actions are so joyfully over-the-top that you can't help but love her.

The problem is that the film's beauty, though not skin deep, is pretty shallow. The plot is an old one, and bares several similarities to better films with Seven in the title. The mystic and pulpy aspects are really the only thing keeping the tale from being entirely tired. Most surprising is the fact that even though two and a half hours long Seven Swords has very little in the way of actual narrative events. I could probably sum up the entire film in a single sentence (but I wouldn't want to spoil it for you). This overly simplistic canvas can sometimes make for beautiful strokes of allegory, or even a rich character study (both very common for the region), but Hark seems to avoid this for the most part.

One may expect the seven leads to be properly defined, but honestly I had trouble telling them apart from the supporting cast when standing in crowds. Visually they just aren't as interesting as the bad guys, which is problem enough, but the real danger is the fact that they're so two-dimensional I don't really care about them. Hark tosses in a couple of character development scenes here and there, but these tend to be very broad, and stick out in context. Only the two villagers, whom we spend the most time with, and Donny Yen's character really memorable emotionally. Yen's innate charm and heavy presence goes a long way, as he really isn't given that much more of a back-story.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition
There are many signs of sloppy adaptation here, which aren't limited to thinly drawn characters. Entirely plot points tend to be dropped as soon as they are introduced, leading to questions about their inclusion at all. I understand that it's impossible to cram an entire book into a feature run time, but why bother hinting at something greater? Interestingly enough, the film does move, and once I got used to Hark's flow I never once noticed the rather long runtime. The film ends as a sort of "to be continued", and if properly filled this could've been a great opener to a great Chinese Lord of the Rings rival. But perhaps this wasn't Hark's concern, as a bit of Internet research reveals the fact that the original cut was somewhere around four hours long. That's a little extreme, but maybe a longer cut should be released someday.

The action is solid plus for the film, and though wire-assisted and fantasy based, the fights are surprisingly brutal. I didn't expect nearly as much blood and gore, but it never seems gratuitous, at least it didn't to me. The sword battle convey a real sense of power and heft, and the swords themselves are given more character than the actors. The wire work and slow-mo are both a joy to watch, and never felt tiresome or too contrived. Again, from a purely visceral and visual standpoint, this is some of the best work Hark's done since The Blade. All in all the film is worth watching, but may gather a slew of mixed reactions.

Video


Any scene that doesn't require a great deal of darkness looks perfect. The colours are very rich, and even the bright ones rarely show signs of compression or blooming. Details are very sharp, and the overall print is relatively grain free. It's a gorgeous film, as I said, and a very specifically visually designed one. Some scenes are dirty, but the picture has a very clean feel overall. Imperfections can be made obvious by this clarity.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition
When darkness prevails the print begins to look damaged. Blacks are never truly black, rather they take on the characteristics of surrounding colours. Shadows are often beset with minor low-level noise. Things are at their worst during the film's fiery final brawl, where the oranges and blacks don't seem to want to gel. It's never awful, but less than perfect.

Audio


The disc includes a DTS and Dolby Digital track in the original Chinese (labelled on the box as Cantonese and Mandarin, though I'm pretty sure they meant Cantonese ( edit: Mandarin) and Korean, as some character speak Korean on occasion). Both tracks are outstanding, and the DTS has a slight volume and bass edge. Surround channels are very aggressive and engrossing. Sound effect tracks have a gigantic depth of feel, and fidelity is very crisp. The dialogue, most likely very A.D.R. heavy, is occasionally artificial sounding. The lip-sync will match, but the inflection occasionally does not. This is more obvious on the DTS track.

The musical score is at times brilliant and mind engraving. I hummed the theme all night after finishing the film. Sometimes it becomes obvious that it was put together on a budget smaller than that of some Hollywood films, but it's a forgiveable offence. Like all great modern film scores, writer Kenji Kawai occasionally steals a cue or two, but overall the score adds some real class to the film.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition

Extras


Every time I write one of these Dragon Dynasty reviews I'm tempted to blow a big raspberry at my friends and readers in the UK. We've got Bey Logan now, and we aren't giving him back. Here, again, Logan delivers another all-star commentary track, but this time he has the help of the legend himself, Tsui Hark. Regardless of the quality of his recent output, I'm still a huge Hark fan. He only has a few issues with the English language, and expresses himself and his craft very clearly for the most part. Bey makes for a great moderator and asks all the right questions. This DVD earns an above average mark for this commentary alone.

The second disc of the set houses all the non-commentary extras, but like the Dragon Dynasty release of Kill Zone it really looks as if there's more material here than there actually is. The selection of deleted and extended scenes are the first on deck. These, surprisingly add very little to the truncated characters and story elements, and are for the most part elongated fight scenes. The scenes are mostly without soundtracks, and the DVD's producers have added selections from the film's score to fill the void. Next time it'd be nice if Dragon Dynasty could make these anamorphically enhanced.

The making of and behind the scenes footage is mostly for advertising purposes. The Making of Seven Swords is really just an EPK, is short, and shot like a music video. The behind the scenes segments are slightly longer versions of the footage found in the EPK. It's mostly raw footage played out of context, and only entertaining for Hark's cigar chomping mug. Pretty disappointing.

Seven Swords: Ultimate Edition
The interview gallery is the bulk of the disc, and include Tsui Hark, Donnie Yen, Zhang Jing-chu and Duncan Lai. Every participant is fluent in English, and states his case clearly. Hark's interview is the best, as his involvement was the greatest. Yen' interview (again) runs the longest, almost an hour. The talking head quality of the interviews makes them a bit patience trying, but fans should enjoy the inclusion, and considering the fluffy nature of the featurettes they are the best behind the scenes information on the set, next to the commentary of course.

Extras are wrapped up with an art gallery and trailers. The art gallery is fun enough, though the character and set designs don't appear to have gone through many drastic changes. The DVD's promotional trailer is a joke, but the original Chinese teasers are pretty great.

Overall


Maybe not worth a purchase for everyone, but worth a rent at least. It appears that unlike other Genius releases, this one will actually be available to those of us without Blockbuster Video accounts for rent. The picture is great to look at, but has a few too many empty calories for a casual cinemaphile's diet. The soundtrack is room shattering, and though the extras aren't as plentiful as the box art claims, the Bey Logan/Tsui Hark commentary is worth the price of admission.


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