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Hong Kong Legends’ release of Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords (aka Chat Gim) came out under its parent label, Contender Home Entertainment, on 29th May 2006 in a two-disc edition. Including DTS but sadly removing nearly fifteen minutes of footage from the original cut, does this still tell a gripping story of Seven Swordsmen from Mount Heaven?

Seven Swords

Feature


”Death is the most lenient punishment.”

The Emperor has issued an edict that all practising of Martial Arts is to be prohibited, with the price of disobeying being the loss of your head. Despite this there are many that ignore the decree, but there are many more that are being killed for even being close to an outlaw, with their lives being traded for a bump up in the bounty. Men, women and children are all fair game as far as the underwear-sniffing General Fire-wind is concerned. It’s their own fault for getting too close to the criminals.

Martial Village is one place where the ancient arts still stand strong, but the day is approaching when General Fire-wind’s forces will arrive and decimate the population. The warning has come from an unlikely source—an old enemy of Dongluo, Fu Qing Ju—and the villagers decide to ignore the warnings despite the protestations of Yuanying. Enlisting the help of her old friend, Han, Yuanying decides to free the now captive Fu and together they head off to find help on the slopes of Mount Heaven.

Greeted by Master Shadow-glow, they are disappointed to find that the other four residents of Mount Heaven are somewhat less than enthused about taking on a matter that is not their concern. However, a change of heart and the realisation that it is “the right thing to do” brings the four men to the aid of the village. Each of the four possesses a sword forged on the mountain, and each has their own personal demons from which they ran away to Mount Heaven in the first place. They have faced their problems but they must now prove themselves in the outside world with the swords that reflect their inner conflicts. Master the sword and master yourself, so the four swordsmen from Mount Heaven—Dragon Sword, Transience Sword, Celestial Beam Sword and Star Chaser Sword—set off to stop General Fire-wind in his murderous tracks. Oh wait, four isn’t seven, is it?

Seven Swords
Those of you that have been paying attention may have noticed that three people went up the mountain to get the help, and Master Shadow-glow sees in them the ability to fight their own battles. Han, Yuanying and Fu—now Deity Sword, Heaven’s Fall Sword and Unlearned Sword—must all play their part, bring down General Fire-wind, and try to persuade the Emperor that the ban is wrong.

So there you have it. A simple story in the vein of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven with the righteous defending a village against evil-doers. Except it isn’t quite that simple, and although the initial attack is repelled the sheer weight of numbers at Fire-wind’s disposal still means that the villagers must flee. In doing so they must cope with treachery in their own ranks while the Seven Swords attempt to stop the oncoming hordes at the source.

Having come into this fresh, I was a little surprised to find that the movie continued after the first seventy minutes. “Where can it go from here?” I asked myself, only to be answered with a few new twists and attacking and counter-attacking between the opposing forces. With so many main characters at the forefront of the action it should have been difficult to devote enough time to each of them to round out their characters and give us the fights that you would expect, but the film itself is well balanced. Some of the scenes cut from this release (which do appear on disc two) may have been excised for pacing purposes but their loss does take a little from the expansion of some of the characters. That said, the narrative flow has been kept, although I will say that I felt that the device of leaving someone’s fate in the balance only to have the resolution revealed by way of a flashback later on did get a little tiresome (and in one case a little confusing).

Seven Swords
The battles themselves are well choreographed, and whilst not going for the graceful but surreal action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero this does result in the skirmishes being more brutal—albeit with a distinct lack of blood. Takashi Miike is probably in tears thinking about the amount of red he could have put on the screen with all the limbs and heads being removed, but the somewhat sanitised results do not harm the action. There are a few personal battles that hold the interest a little more than the ones relying on force of numbers, particularly one close-quarters encounter, but the action is well done throughout.

Suspension of disbelief is always the order of the day when coming in to a film in this genre, but barring the actual Seven Swords themselves, and a few of the other weapons, the majority of the piece doesn’t demand that much of that corner of your brain. The names of some of the characters could strike you as a bit daft (Hair-wolf, Mud-trot, Bald Lion and Stone Beast being just a few), but that could just be a bit of direct translation throwing a spanner in the works.

It isn’t quite Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but being a little more based in reality it perhaps shouldn’t be measured against them anyway. The various threads and character interactions work together nicely to bring a well crafted story to the screen, which only suffers a little for the reliance on flashbacks—some of which are done to good effect, others didn’t feel necessary—but then most will probably mind that less than myself. I think Cas poked a few more holes in this one in his review of the uncut Hong Kong DVD, but I was happy enough with this without being completely stunned—and it’s still a more entertaining effort than the US can muster in this genre.

Seven Swords

Video


Rich reds, subtly green grass, bright, crisp and detailed white snow, and some lovely autumnal hues make this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer a pleasure to look at. A stormingly accurate palette that doesn’t try to exaggerate itself like parts of Hero—and I’m not picking holes in the latter before anyone cries foul—there is a decent amount of detail throughout. Close-ups reveal good skin texture and flesh tones, and light shafts and smoke tend to come over well. There is some light but infrequent edge enhancement present, and fog can look a little fuzzy at times, but otherwise there is precious little to find fault with.

The all-important subtitles are clear and well-timed, and it would seem to be a decent translation as well. The various captions and plot necessary signs are also translated (as are some of the beginning and end titles) which is a bonus for me given that quite a few of the Manga UK releases I’ve reviewed lately haven’t done this particularly well.

The layer change, for anyone that cares, sits nicely at the end of chapter nineteen at around 1h20m58s.

Audio


Sadly not a full rate DTS track, but a DTS track nonetheless, the main track used for my listening pleasure exhibits some good separation and stereo effects but also pans well into the surround speakers. There are a few occasions where effects swoop around the full soundstage, and the rest of the time the effects fill in the atmosphere nicely.

Seven Swords
Rumbles and storms are satisfyingly rooted in the bowels of the subwoofer and balanced well enough with the rest of the track to provide the oomph without drowning out everything else and bringing the walls down. Subtle reinforcement of other elements of the track—especially the Dragon Sword—gives the proceedings a real depth, and the high end is also well represented. If there was one nitpick, it would be that the vocals are mixed a tad high in the centre channel, but at least this makes them clear and in no danger of being muddied.

It’s a close call between the Mandarin DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and the latter competes admirably.  However, although the effects are similarly well engineered and the aural tricks are all present the Dolby Digital track falls a little behind due to the DTS track’s slightly superior rendition of the score and slightly more refined bass handling. Either track will provide you with a good experience, though.

Extras


Taking the wise decision to release this is a two disc edition, the only extras on disc one are a selection of trailers (all of which are anamorphic, and most come with Dolby Digital Stereo sound) and related DVD info for Premier Asia and Hong Kong Legends releases. The Warrior (1m47s), Bichunmoo: Warrior of Virtue (2m27s), Ong Bak (2m10s, Dolby Digital 5.1) and Bang-Rajan (2m20s) make up the Premier Asia offerings, with the Hong Kong Legends platter consisting of Iron Monkey (2m00s), Once Upon a Time in China (1m42s) , Once Upon a Time in China 2 (2m06s, Dolby Digital 5.1) and Once Upon a Time in China 3 (1m51s).

Seven Swords
On to disc two then, where the majority of content is in Mandarin Dolby Digital Stereo with burnt-in English subtitles, and first up is the ‘Promotional Gallery’. The UK theatrical trailer (1m42s), theatrical teaser (1m01s) and TV spot (31s) are here, along with a pair of Hong Kong theatrical trailers (1m32s & 2m50s) and some footage from the charity premiere (3m29s). Only the UK stuff is anamorphic, but the downside with those is that ‘generic, gravel-voiced bloke’ does the usual dramatic voiceover (in English and lacking subtitles).

The Interview Gallery contains interviews with the director and the main players of the piece. Given the number of main characters you can guess that that means there’s quite a few, all of which are separate with no ‘Play All’ option. Tsui Hark (9m08s) gives his thoughts on the story and of the making of the film in some uncomfortable conditions, and then you can make your way through the following:

  • Donnie Yen (Dragon Sword – 6m13s)
  • Lau Kar-Leung (Unlearned Sword – 8m31s)
  • Leon Lai (Transience Sword – 10m01s)
  • Duncan Chow (Celestial Beam Sword – 4m54s)
  • Charlie Young (Heaven’s Fall Sword – 11m)
  • Tai Liwu (Star Chaser Sword – 4m27s)
  • Lu Yi (Deity Sword – 7m)
  • Kim So Yuen (Green Pearl – 5m59s)
  • Zhang Jingchu (Liu Yufang – 10m11s)
  • Sun Honglei (Fire-wind – 15m53s)

They all follow the ‘caption card with the question followed by x answering’ style, with the common themes of working in hostile environments, most memorable scenes, and what it was like working with Tsui Hark (Mr. Tsui was, of course, not asked that particular question). Apart from the sound quality being pretty appalling (ranging from plain hissy to really quiet), the actual content is quite open with the actors not being shy to impart their thoughts. Sun Honglei was especially distrusting of the Martial Arts genre—feeling that there was a lack of characterisation in most films—but appears to have been converted during the making of this film.

Seven Swords
Onto ‘Forging the Sword’, which houses ‘The Making of Seven Swords’ (17m33s), four short production diaries (5m13s, 4m17s, 5m16s and 5m15s) and a production gallery slideshow set to music from the film (3m45s). The ‘Making of...’ is really just interview footage—most of which can be found in its extended form above—mixed with clips from the film and some behind the scenes visuals with little or no voiceover to take us through the proceedings. The production diaries forego the film clips, but again are mostly goings on on-set with a bit of music and the odd production sketch.

Rounding it all off are a couple of sets of deleted scenes from both the original version and the UK cut. Both sets are in Mandarin Dolby Digital Stereo with English subtitles, but only the UK scenes are anamorphically enhanced.

  • The Seventh Sword (1m03s)
  • A Defiant Village(2m13s)
  • Refusal to Sing (2m18s)
  • Love Triangle (2m08s)

These were all hewn from the original film, whereas the UK also lost the following:

  • Heaven’s Fall Sees Too Much (1m48s)
  • Searching the Desert (4m37s)
  • Conflict Underground (2m59s)
  • A Darker Plot (1m25s)
  • A Longer Struggle (1m49s)

and had a slightly altered original ending (1m), bringing a total of 13m38s of UK cuts—although there is only about 13s of the original ending that is anything new. Taking the running time of the actual feature and that old chestnut ‘PAL Speedup’ into account these cuts do more or less take us to the original 153m runtime. Of the excised scenes, only ‘Searching the Desert’ (with Han trying to lose a best friend for the horse’s own good) moved me to wish it was in the main film, but even though it might have been tight I can’t see any reason why the uncut feature couldn’t have made it onto disc one. The ‘Further Attractions’ could quite happily have sat on disc two to make it a little more comfortable. Admittedly, my calculations could be a little out, but what we have been saddled with even comes in about a minute short of the 141m Singapore cut (if the IMDb is to be believed).

Seven Swords
Anyway, with the rant over, this is a decent collection of extras, although maybe only the interviews have any real substance and some of the subtitles could have been spelt better. At least the scenes missing from the main feature have a chance to be viewed by those unlucky enough not to have access to the original cut of the film.

Overall


A solid presentation of both sound and picture, with the former only denied a ten in the knowledge that a full rate DTS track could have improved things just a little more. It is a pity that this is not the full uncut version, but we are (unfortunately) getting the 140m version released to UK theatres that was cut before submission to the BBFC. I’m sure someone out there will be able to enlighten us all as to the reasons for this, but if the deleted scenes are anything to go by not too much damage has been done (that isn’t me condoning the cuts by the way).

The extras are nothing spectacular, but if you are restricted to region two purchases then the film itself is worth a dip.


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