Back when Hark Tsui's Seven Swords [Qi Jian] was first released, I remember there being quite a bit of fuss surrounding the film. It died out rather quickly, and I have to admit that I'd forgotten most about this film too, even though I did like it quite a bit the first time I watched it. It never managed to become a true Tsui classic, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to give it another go. I'm very glad I did, as it turns out Seven Swords hasn't lost any of its original appeal. Maybe it even gained some, now that we're not swamped in big budget martial arts epics anymore.
Back in 2005, Seven Swords was just one in many. In the wake of Yimou Zhang's Hero and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a slew of big budget martial arts epics made it onto the market. Every big and important director wanted to have a shot at the genre, but few had the prior experience of Hark Tsui. He already earned his merits when he directed Once Upon A Time In China a good decade earlier. Of course, that isn't a surefire guarantee for success, as these new films demanded a more pronounced and refined aesthetic. Seven Swords tries to combine both worlds, and while it doesn't quite excel in either (unlike, for example, The Banquet), the result is a pretty great film still.
Though Tsui is a superb action director, he was never really known for making very refined and stylish films. Luckily, the Hong Kong industry functions like a well-oiled machine, so there's always enough talent around to make up for any shortcomings a director may have. While Seven Swords doesn't look quite as lush or extravagant as some of the more prominent films of that era, it's clearly a big step up from Tsui's regular work. And when certain talents weren't present locally, the budget of these films allowed for bringing on board foreign visionaries, which is how Kenji Kawai got to do the score.
The end of the martial arts era is upon us, but this societal shift didn't happen very peacefully. To prevent resistance of the skilled fighters, a price is put on the heads of those who don't conform to the new rules. Vicious bounty hunters abuse the law and go on a murderous spree, killing entire villages if needed. This makes them a pretty good buck, but soon enough not too many villages are left, and the remaining martial artists decide to take a final stand. With the help of seven mythical swords, they hope to bring the raiders to a stop. They are greatly outnumbered, while also protecting an entire village of defenseless people, which doesn't make their job any easier.
If you look at the Chinese martial arts epics of that era, the bar for cinematography was insanely high. Seven Swords doesn't really compare with the very best, but it's certainly no slouch in the visual department. Hark opted for rugged scenery and muted colors to create a very unwelcoming setting. The costumes and prop look great, the camera work is inspired and enhances the action, the editing is slick and pointed. Use of color and light are also very nice, which all adds up to a very lush-looking and appealing film. It's no Hero, then again not every film can be.
The soundtrack doesn't deviate too much from the norm, but people familiar with Kenji Kawai's work will surely recognize traces of his signature style. It's never as distinctive or leading as Kawai's best work (which was for Mamoru Oshii's 90s/early 00s films), but there were moments where I could hear clear echoes of the Avalon soundtrack. The score is certainly a step up from most of these martial arts epics, which tend to get very safe and predictable music, though I wouldn't have minded if Kawai had managed to make an even bigger impact on the overall film. With him on board, the potential was there to do even better.
By the time he made Seven Swords, Tsui was a veteran director, which no doubt helped him with the casting. It's not just a random all-star cast either, Tsui casting someone like Chia-Liang Liu as the top martial artist shows his love for the genre and the respect he has for his predecessors. But then you also have guys like Donnie Yen and Leon Lai adding the necessary star power to the film, women like Jingchu Zhang and Kim So-yeon offering great performances, and Honglei Sun playing one of the meanest bad guys I've ever seen in a martial arts epic. It's truly a stellar cast, who knew well enough what kind of film they were making.
Seven Swords is a pretty long film, especially when you consider the simple story it tells. There are quite a few characters to introduce and quite a handful of battles to be fought, but in the end you're still watching a very basic good guys vs bad guys showdown with a pretty predictable winner. Tsui's build-up is pretty smart, with a great opening fight and a sprawling finish. The fight in between the narrow walls is a genre classic and one that shows what Tsui's capable off, given enough time and budget (and well, limited access to CG). The middle part might drag a little for people who are hyperfocused on action, but the film never bored me or felt excessively slow.
Expectations were maybe a bit too high when the film was first released, which is why I'm confident this is the type of film that could benefit from a rewatch, certainly in this CG-dominated era of martial arts cinema. Unless you're looking for quick-paced action throughout, it's a film without any weaknesses and a sizeable amount of highlights. The lush visuals, great score and superb cast all add to this epic journey, which truly shines whenever people dig out their swords and start to hack, slash and twirl. Hark Tsui may be one of the directors I underestimate the most, so don't be like me and give this film a fair shot.