Seven Swords (HK - DVD)
Casimir Harlow reviews the Hong Kong release of this Donnie Yen feature film
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It all started with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sure, there were plenty of East Asian movies before that which were 'historical' wire-fu martial arts adventures, but none so internationally successful. This Chow Yun-Fat/Zhang Ziyi starring, Ang Lee directed production is still probably my favourite, although subsequently successful feature-films like Hero (with Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi) and House of Flying Daggers (with Andy Lau and, yes–you guessed it–Zhang Ziyi) are arguably excellent as well. The latest release is Seven Swords, starring Donnie Yen (who was also in Hero) and directed by action maestro Tsui Hark (the man behind Jet Li's Once Upon A Time In China trilogy).
Set in seventeenth Century China, where the ruthless Manchurians have taken over the sovereignty and the Emperor of the Qing Dynasty has decreed that the practice of all martial arts be outlawed. In order to enforce this debilitating law, he has established a ruthless band of mercenary warriors (who look more like zombie-scavengers) who exact the punishment for breaking the law–decapitation–with scythe-wielding relish. Because there is literally a price on everybody’s head (they are paid on a 'commission' basis per heads recovered) they are not particularly choosy about who they kill: the slightest display of any kind of fighting skills whatsoever normally results in everybody–women, children and elders–being killed.
After slaughtering a whole village, they come across a single old man, Fu (Liu Chia-Liang) who puts up a hell of a fight but refuses to actually harm any one of them. Whilst fleeing, he encounters a scout from the Emperor's brigade who is about to kill a poor girl, Wu (Charlie Yeung), from a neighbouring village, and helps her defeat her attacker. But when he returns to her village to warn the others of the warriors who will come for their heads, he is met with cynicism and disbelief. He himself comes under suspicion for his previous work as an executioner, which he professes that he is now trying to make amends for. When the villagers refuse to heed his warnings about the impending attack, the young girl he saved, along with another villager, Han (Lu Yi) decide to help him escape from his imminent war crimes execution, taking him back to a mountain retreat run by Master Shadow-Glow (Jingwu Ma) where a team of fellow warriors reside. There they persuade the sword masters to help come back and protect the villagers from the approaching mercenaries, thus returning to the village as the Seven Swords and instigating the start of a change to the dictatorial regime.
Tsui Hark has fashioned a lavish, epic production from what is essentially a reworking of Seven Samurai. Note, that's a reworking NOT a remake because, whilst the story is undeniably similar to (and no doubt inspired by) Akira Kurosawa's classic, it is still quite fresh and original in the way it tells the tale and, ultimately, in the very different outcome (unlike, for example, the blatant remake The Magnificent Seven, where the only real difference is the use of guns rather than swords). Seven Swords is also noteworthy for its promotion of the underrated martial arts master Donnie Yen from a secondary star (having little success in Hollywood, merely getting cameo roles in movies like Blade 2 and Shanghai Knights) to a distinct lead. For all the acting talent that is on offer here (and there are plenty of solid performances from actors that I do not recognise) he stands out as the real star, playing a quiet, brooding warrior–Chu–whose capabilities with a powerful and mystical sword are indefeasible.
Fu is arguably the wisest of the group, particularly since he is the eldest, with the orphan Yang (Leon Lai) being also wise beyond his own years and massively powerful with his Excalibur-like sword. The others are all also highly trained, wielding double blades (which can ingeniously be connected together to form a kind of sword-based set of nunchuks), heavy rock-breaking swords or other mystical weaponry like the weird sliding sword that Wu is given as a gift from Master Shadow-Glow (which seems ludicrously impractical). Despite their skills and their powerful swords, they have their work cut out for them, battling the Emperor's lead General, Fire-Wind (Honglei Sun), who is simply a demonic psychopath, along with all of his ruthless minions.
Despite all of the strong characters, as Ive stated, the only real stand-out performance is Donnie Yen, and the star acting is distinctly lacking amidst the female entourage. Wu is too tom-boyish to really distinguish from the others (although she does have her captivating moments) and the only other significant female player is the Generals slave, Green Pearl, who is rescued by Chu but does not really know how to live out of oppression. Both of the girls have romantic interests, but none of the love aspects are handled very well (give me Zhang Ziyi any day), at least not in comparison to the superb action, which is where the movie really comes into its own.
For a start, those who didn’t like the 'floating' wire-fu employed most obviously in [/i]Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon[/i] (I personally loved it, much like the 'force' in Star Wars), it is not very evident in this latest escapade. Sure, there are a few scenes where people skip around walls and posts, but things are largely kept on the ground, or more believable Jackie Chan-like stunts are employed (like fighting in narrow corridors, where they push themselves up between the walls), without making the action any less innovative and captivating. Once again, this is where Donnie Yen particularly gets to show his talents and basically show off.
Seven Swords is not, in my opinion, as good as either Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, and with its basic Seven Samurai story, the overlong runtime begins to drag after a while (particularly since none of the romance works very well). There are also some ludicrous plot holes that become distinctly apparent towards the end. However, since I love all of these movies, the fact that Seven Swords ranks third out of my four favourite wire-fu adventures is no real criticism at all. In fact, it is probably high praise. And after all this I hope that Donnie Yen finally starts getting the leads that he deserves: after all he clearly has both the skills and the presence to carry off a decent action-drama role. Perhaps Seven Swords will be the start of something great.
Seven Swords is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio widescreen transfer that is of good quality. There is decent detail and clarity throughout, with little noticeable edge enhancement and light grain apparent in some scenes more than others (because they occasionally use filters to change the colours). The colour scheme is broad and varied, with the snow-capped mountain ranges, the ochre deserts and the luscious green trees all looking sumptuous and picturesque. Blacks are strong and deep and allow for great night sequences and good shadowing. Overall there is no sign of any print damage whatsoever.
This release also comes with two solid audio tracks–the original language Mandarin track and a Cantonese dub, both in Dolby Digital 5.1. Of course the former is the far superior of the two because there are no lip-synch issues (although I am not convinced that they did the Korean-language sequences without some ADR), but both present the dialogue at the forefront, with the rousing (and moderately repetitive) theme giving your frontal array a workout and warming the rears up for the subsequent action sequences. The metal-clashing sword sequences are the most effects-based, but we also get a little cannon fire to make a play for the LFE. Overall these are solid soundtracks. Subtitles are clear and coherent, and actually appear to have been done by somebody who knows what they are doing this time, so you are unlikely to have to decipher them in any way so that you can understand what is going on.
Seven Swords gets the two-disc treatment here, with a second disc containing extras that actually have English subtitles for a change. First up we get a ‘Making of’, which runs at seventeen minutes in length and features plenty of footage from the final film itself, along with behind the scenes shots, artwork and interviews with the main cast and crew. Donnie Yen and his compatriots comment on the story, the characters, their own part and the martial arts in the movie, with some revealing shots of how they did the wire-fu and plenty of interesting snippets of information (despite the fact that they spend a stupid amount of time showing you what is essentially an extended trailer, knowing full-well that you will have probably just watched the movie!).
Then we have four shooting diaries, each lasting about five minutes and looking at–in turn–the costume design, the filming, the story and the filming done on the snow-glazed mountains. Only two of them have any dialogue whatsoever, the others merely amounting to endless behind the scenes footage cut to a score. There are some interesting and revealing moments, a few comments from the cast, including Donnie Yen and the director, Tsui Hark, but some of the footage is duplicated from the main making-of and with so little commentary and no explanation, they can get a bit aimless.
‘The Swords: The Swordsmen’ is a text-based list of the different characters and the actors who play them (I wish I had found this before having to painstakingly decipher all of their names for the main review). They list all seven swordsmen, explaining what drives them and the characteristics of their individual swords.
There are two interviews: a six-minute one with Donnie Yen and a ten-minute slot with Leon Lai (Yang). We get text-questions splayed on the screen and then the actors are allowed to give you long, considered answers. Asked what they thought of the project, the script, working with Tsui Hark and so forth, we get plenty of background into Donnie returning to Hong Kong cinema, the characters these two play and the reason why they think it is such a great film. These interviews are a nice touch and go some way towards making up for the lack of a commentary.
We get three and a half minutes of footage from the Hong Kong Gala Premiere, once again set to music, along with a photo gallery of stills that you have the option to watch as a slideshow. There are also two trailers: a theatrical and a shorter teaser effort, neither of which give away anything that you did not know already from the name.
Seven Swords is quality viewing. With a strong story and solid acting, led by Donnie Yen, who has finally been given an opportunity to truly shine, it is a worthy addition to the recent spate of wire-fu adventures. The transfer is reasonably good, if not exceptional, and the soundtrack is solid and powerful when it needs to be. With a second disc full of extras (which actually have subtitles for a change), this is a great release that fans of the genre are going to want to add to their collection before it hits Hollywood, gets promoted as if they discovered it, re-dubbed into English and eventually remade. Enjoy it while you can.
You can purchase this title for $15.99 from Yes Asia.
Review by Casimir Harlow
Not suitable for young persons and children
Release Date: 29th September 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin, Dolby Digital 5.1 Cantonese
Subtitles: English, Traditional Chinese
Extras: Making-of Featurette, Shooting Diaries Featurette, The Swordsman Text Feature, News Clip of Hong Kong Gala Premiere, Photo Gallery, Star Interviews with Donnie Yen and Leon Lai and Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Donnie Yen, Charlie Yeung, Leon Lai
Length: 153 minutes
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