Seven Swords (2005)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2009-11-01
Summary: Missing too much
Those who first encountered “Seven Swords” in the cinema may have been very frustrated moviegoers. Those amazing images of horsemen galloping through a snow blasted mountain wasteland, of the bloody death inflicted on everyone in villages within the reach of the warriors of Fire-Wind, of the touching, tender moments snatched by men and women caught in the crucible of total war seen on a 24 x 70 foot while hearing the stirring, thrilling score of Kawai Kenji thundering out of huge speakers surrounding the auditorium would be a profound audience experience. It would have been maddening to realize that the film they were watching was chopped up into episodic hunks with little transition so that the story was barely recognizable with little structure and subplots ending before they were resolved, characters simply appearing and disappearing and the drama, pathos and excitement of the conflict sacrificed to—well, whatever it was sacrificed to.

The noblest (perhaps too noble) themes run through “Seven Swords”: stoic heroism, duty to one’s country and ancestors, the character and morality that separates men of honor from mercenaries, the necessity for self-sacrifice in the face of threats to the entire society—lots of self-sacrifice, enough for ten, maybe 100 movies--certainly too much even for an epic of this scope.

One hopes that the “original” four hour version of “Seven Swords” won’t take it place beside the original of Von Stroheim’s “Greed”, Kurosowa’s “The Idiot” or Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”. Based on the 150 minutes or so of the released print it could be quite a film. As it is there are so many truncated scenes or plot lines with unexplained gaps that one can only wonder what came before or after the material that made it to the screen. Perhaps the worst example of this is Fu Qingzhu, a retired executioner and torturer of revolutionaries from the prior dynasty, but retired recently enough that he is still recognized by one of the men he tortured, a man whose back is still scarred by Fu’s whip strokes. How this very evil person became a respected holy swordsman of Heavenly Mountain, a person of such probity and quiet fortitude that his word is accepted as law by all of who encounter him isn’t explained. It just happens which for me at least was a total “what the hell” moment.

Fu could have been living through some type of Avici hell with this as the 100th or 1000th or one millionth time through, first as executioner, then as hero, then as who knows what, but condemned to kill and torture, to watch those he loves killed and then be killed himself (perhaps) for as many years as there are drops of water in the ocean. Or it could have been explained a bit less fancifully in the scenes cut between the time that Wu and Han are caught in an avalanche and when they are walking around in new animal skin outfits, deciding how to get back home having met some of the Seven Swords on not wanting anything to do with them. But it would have to be explained in some way.

A much smaller but still very annoying lacuna happens (or seems it must happen) before the scene with the horse Joy Luck. On one hand it makes all the sense in the world for a mounted soldier operating in hostile territory to fear the loss of his horse, his only way of either escaping the enemy or closing battle on terms that he chooses. And, of course, there is a long history of movie animals being personified as noble and virtuous, loyal to the death and never willing to leave their master. But to have “poor Joy Luck” suddenly as the focus of attention and his doomed attempt to rejoin the master who has just released him into the wilderness is very jarring, another “what was he (Tsui Hark) thinking?”. One hopes that whatever he was thinking it was left not on the cutting room floor but carefully filed away along with the other 90 minutes or so that were cut.

The question that all of this begs, of course, is why a four hour version of “Seven Swords” was shot in the first place. No one, Tsui Hark included, could have imagined it would be released at that length. The distributors and exhibitors must have blanched when confronted with a 150 minute monstrosity, cutting at least one and probably two showing out of each day and making it a sure thing that cinema operators would lose money on it.

There are some wonderful performances in “Seven Swords”. Liu Chia-Liang as Fu was perfect, although it would have been great to see him do the transition from evil executioner to defender of the downtrodden. Sun Hong-Lei as General Fire-Wind had a role that actors relish—always in the moment, always on edge ready to laugh, weep or stomp a subordinate to death. Sun left little scenery unchewed and looked as if he enjoyed every minute of it.

Charlie Yeung came through beautifully in one of the few roles that required the character to grow and develop. Wu began as the headstrong, reckless village girl, daughter of the headman and determined to get her way, then became the apprentice swordswoman, terribly unsure of her abilities and fearing she would never master the use of the sword with which she had been entrusted. Wu slowly developed into the confident warrior she is at the end of the film, willing to allow others to help her understand the mysteries of her new weapon. One of the few funny (or at least no terribly serious or bloody) scenes that survived the meat-axe editing was one in which she almost killed herself while trying out her sword, on that magically disappeared into its hilt and reappeared. While it was formidable weapon in the right hands she made it a danger to herself and every around her with her amateurish handling.

The set design and costuming were excellent, particularly the devilish armed band following Fire-Wind. Their armoured horses and fantastic weapons were like modern tanks and aircraft introduced to a nineteenth century battlefield—their opponents had never seen anything like theses and were not only defeated but completely demoralized and slaughtered quickly and efficiently with no casualties or even discomfort for Fire-Wind’s forces. They were designed look like an implacable, unstoppable and machine like force to the extent it was shocking when one of them, on reconnaissance was not only thwarted in his attempt to grab Wu but, with the help of Fu Quingzhu (still in his chrysalis period as the former executioner) was killed.

The structure the film hung on was a familiar one. The new emperor had outlawed martial arts throughout his kingdom and issued an edict that all martial arts practitioners were to be killed with proof of their death—apparently a head or body with a name tag or death tablet attached—rewarded with coin from his treasury. The Duke, an effete but still deadly type, was given responsibility for an area in the northwest and had subcontracted the actual killing to Fire-Wind. There was only one village left in his area—Martial Village, where Wu and the others lived by tilling the soil and defending themselves from roving bandits with martial arts. It is here the final battle (at least the final battle in this movie) between Good and Evil will be waged.

There are a few unintentionally hilarious scenes. The one that impressed me most was in the aftermath of the first battle when a raiding party from Fire-Wind stormed the walls of the village and was wreaking havoc inside. The Seven Swords arrived at the right time and made short but extremely bloody work of the enemy. Despite their efforts a number of defenders and their wives and children had already been put to the knife and much of the village was in flames. In the grim aftermath, as bodies were being piled up, village men were insanely hacking at the corpses of the attackers and fires were burning unchecked one of the Seven Swords approached a child and said to him, “Little brother you will see the ugly side of the world...” going on to say that good men could still triumph. Wait a minute—here is a six year old sitting on the ruins a building—possibly his former home—watching flames destroy the rest of the buildings and the adults he formerly honored and obeyed either dead or insane with blood lust. And he WILL see the ugly side of the world. It is so difficult to imagine a world uglier than that around him right then and there that the scene is ridiculous.

A very provisional rating of a 6 for “Seven Swords”.
Reviewer Score: 6