Martial arts films live or die by their fight scenes and Seven Swords just can't cut it.
You know you're in trouble when the bad guys look like a Finnish death metal band. And so it is with Tsui Hark's Seven Swords: a Wuxia movie that mistakes length, unsympathetic characters and risible dialogue for Epic with a capital 'E'.
Wuxia, for those who don't know, is a subset of Chinese martial arts rooted in the country's literature, where chivalrous warriors in a fantastical setting ride into town to save the day. Tsui Hark has been responsible for some of the genre's most memorable films, including the visually stunning Zu Warriors from 1983.
But while Zu Warriors had a charming naivety bolstered by over the top visual effects and cheeky campness, with Seven Swords Hark attempts something sleeker with a distinctly modern look.
Set at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in the seventeenth century, a small village holds out against the evil Fire-wind (Sun Honglei) whose troops are rounding up and killing anyone thought to be involved with martial arts, collecting a bounty for each dead body from the government.
A couple of villagers set off for Mount Heaven with the aid of a retired executioner, Fu Qing Ju (Liu Chia-Liang), in an attempt to persuade Master Shadow-glow (Ma Jingwu), a hermit sword-maker to help. Being a swell guy, he provides four of his disciples and seven magical swords to defend the villagers.
There is a superficial touch of Akira Kurasawa's Seven Samurai (or John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, if you prefer) about the plot, which unfolds in a series of laborious tableaux as the villagers attempt to escape from Fire-wind. But the swords and their magical properties are never fully explained and the warriors that wield them fail to bring any depth to the story.
Martial arts films live or die by their fight scenes, and Seven Swords just can't cut it. The fight choreography is muddied by choppy editing, making it difficult to tell what's going on. Clearly influenced by the visual style of modern Wuxia movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, Seven Swords may look sumptuous but Tsui Hark has neither Zhang Yimou's sense of poetry, or Ang Lee's sense of drama. One for martial arts pedants only.
Great cast peppered with seasoned martial arts actors.
Donnie Yen provides the only inventive fight scene.
Confusing script and fights that are frankly rubbish.