Monday, September 19, 2005

Seven Swords

Seven Swords is a film which attempts to capture the epic look and intimate scope of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and the classic wu xia structure of the Shaw Brothers prolific library of films, including the work of King Hu, Chang Cheh as well as Tsui Hark’s own early work along the lines of Legend of the Zu Mountain. The fact that Hark fails on such a colossal level may in part be to the recent overhaul of the genre with art-directors taking over the reigns. War Kong Wai, Ang Lee, and the one-two punch from Zhang Yimou have elevated the genre to a such a high level that I don’t think we can easily go back to The Bride with the White Hair or The New Dragon Gate Inn. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Ronny Yu’s film or even Harks update of the King Hu classic, but they have their time and place and the acting and directing standards are just higher these days. Seven Swords is also not a nostalgic return to the original form. It is just a mess.

The story (based upon the wu xia novel Seven Swordsmen from Mountain Tien) is set in a period of Chinese history when the emperor has put up bounties on those practicing the martial arts. Mercenary and bandit gangs are roaming the countryside killing just about anyone, as the price is for the head of the practitioner of martial arts. It is difficult to prove from a severed head that the body could actually practice the art, so basically the gangs kill anyone who cannot defend themselves and collect bounties en masse. The movie opens up with a small village that is quickly wiped out. One martial artist escapes to warn the next village. The new village does not want to listen, because this they recognize him as an executioner for a past government, and the suspect treachery and lies despite his pleas that he has reformed his past ways. Two villagers, a brother and sister, do believe the story and they bust him out and travel deep into the mountains to seek the legendary sword-masters to help the village. They find the wise ancient sword-maker four sword-masters and seven very unique swords of power. Thus the martial artist and the two peasants are round out the group of swordsmen to make the titular seven. After an attempt to defend the village results in a marginal victor with a lot of casualties, the remaining villagers attempt flight through the mountains. Meanwhile, the swordsmen take some of the fight to the bandits lair, and there they kill a number of them, but not enough. In the process, they free the Bandit leaders Korean Slave girl and bring her back to flee with the villagers. In the course of fleeing a traitor signs of a traitor being in the midst makes everyone suspicious. Is it a villager? One of the Swordsmen? The Korean girl?

From that description, you would think you have a pretty interesting story with a lot of characters and potential. So where to begin with the colossal mess that is Seven Swords. In the 39 films I caught at this years Toronto Film Festival, it was easily the worst film I saw. And I love wu xia, I truly do. Lets take a slide down the ladder of hackery on Hark’s incompetent opus.

First, the film looks like it was lit entirely by candle light. 75% of the film is brown and orange and indistinct. It is the worst aesthetic I’ve seen in a genre known for its visual flourishes. Then there are 10-15 scenes which are so colour de-saturated as to be nearly black and white, but for what purpose? To point out how inconsistently you can colour time a film? It certainly has no context in the story. Actually, part of me is now convinced that the print of the film I watched was not colour timed yet. It would explain the just-plain awful look of the film. Colour timing could however, not fix the 90% of the film, which is shot with an unmoving camera at boring ‘medium’ distance. There are a few wide shots and even fewer close-ups. And the stagnant camera gives the feeling of watching a badly lit high-school drama. If it is all very badly staged and filmed, it is the one thing in the film that Hark is consistent in. Humour, tragedy, tone and mood are whipped though the blender on frappe.

Second, the acting is flatter than the visuals. A lot of characters yell at each other without any feeling, or brood and sulk like Donnie Yen. You have only to watch Yen in the instant classic SPL (which through a quirk in scheduling, I watched less than 1 hour after seeing Seven Swords) to see that the man is capable. But here he is pure rubbish. The rest of the cast are non-descript and uninteresting with the only two exceptions. Lau Kar-leung as the executioner turned noble, and village woman turned swords-woman (Charlie Young) carry themselves with some degree of confidence and talent. The swordsmen in particluar are poorly developed as the film spends way, way, way too much time on the sub-plot between Donnie Yen’s swordsman and the Korean slave-girl, Green Pearl, played by (admittedly gorgeous) So-yeon Kim. Both are wholeheartedly unconvincing, and this element of the movie bogs it down for an unnecessary 45 minutes…at the very least. A better estimate may be greater than 60 minutes. This leaves some of the master swordsmen as no more than footnotes in the story. Hark doesn’t even bother to properly introduce them at the appropriate time in the story. This is sad, considering how far the two villagers when to find them and how much time is spent on other things.

Third, the wu xia scenes are boring. Yes, hundreds of people flying though the air attacking each other. It takes a special brand of director to make this flat out suck as much as it does here. The only shining light in the film is a tightly filmed scene in a narrow stone corridor between Donnie Yen and bad-guy bandit Fire-Wind (Honglei Sun). It is the only sequence in the entire film really worth watching, and even that was done to some degree in one entry of the Once Upon a Time in China series. Considering the talent on board for this (important) aspect of the film (Donnie Yen, Lau Kar-leung), it is a waste all the time and talent involved.

Special mention should be made for the particularly laughable 5-10 minute long sequence involving stable-boy turned swordsman Han (Yi Lu) and his horse, which has been made lame by the arduous journey. If perhaps Hark had set this sequence up with the horse being involved in the movie earlier we may have had some context for the overwrought sequence. But as it stands here, it just made me count the minutes which Hark was imprisoning me in my chair and wasting my time with his film. Now there are rumours of several much longer version than the 150 minute version which I barely made it though. A longer run-time may flesh out much of the poorly executed story and character elements, and colour timing could fix the visual mess. But from this experience, I shudder even at the thought of sitting through a 240+ minute version of the film. Pray for that miracle, as the chances for Tsui Hark, at this moment in his career, to have the ability to fix things, are slim.

If I had seen Seven Swords in 1985, I may have liked this sweeping mess of a story, which looks like it was made during this time period. Of course, I would also be only 10 years old with little context of the actual art of modern filmmaking, Chinese or otherwise.


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