February 22, 2007

DVD Review: Seven Swords

Seven Swords marks the first feature from writer/producer/director Tsui Hark since the massively disappointing (at least to me) Black Mask 2. This film is an epic tale of heroism, revenge, loyalty, and love in a gritty world where death may be just around the corner. It is a highly entertaining film that may not be terribly solid in its narrative, but makes up for it in the plentiful, and inventive fight sequences.

The story is set at the end of the Ming Dynasty and the early times of the Ching Dynasty. The new rulers feared a revolt, and in an effort to solidify and protect their power an edict was declared. The edict outlawed the practice of martial arts, anyone who practices must turn over their weapons or face stiff consequences. The problem is that those who were sent out to enforce the edict were a bloodthirsty lot, who found that they would be paid for the heads of the martial artists, not to mention anyone else who happened to be there. They were, essentially, death squads traveling the countryside, leaving blood and death in their wake.

Seven Swords centers on seven warriors who band together to defend a village from the oncoming storm. To aid them in their duty, they travel to a master at Mount Heaven, who bestows upon them the seven swords of the title. Each of these blades reacts differently, and offers a unique attack based on its bearer. The seven are not a well oiled machine, there is a question of loyalty, and a love that develops among members of the group. Throughout, they must retain focus to do battle with the death squad that is coming their way.

It is a story of epic proportions, and it is shot that way, yet it tries to remain much more intimate in its focus on these seven and the village that they are to protect. Running more than two and a half hours (and this is an edited version, I have read that the original cut clocked in at 4 hours), it covers a lot of ground. Yet, even as long as it is, there is much that seems to be glazed over, most notably how the seven come together and become the bearers of certain swords.

As I watched the film, I got the feeling that it was not meant to be as deep as it seems. I could be wrong, but I see Tsui Hark in a similar way to Luc Besson. Both of them have had excellent careers as directors, writers, and producers. They both have unique visions that they convey in different ways through their role in a given film. Above all, while they both make very good films, they put a premium on making the film entertaining.

I admit to being a bit lost as to who was who and what the exact motivations of some of the characters were. I believe that is the reason that I turned to the more visceral aspects of the film, the fights and such. Another reason would have to be the feeling of choppiness in the narrative. It is not so much that it cannot be followed, as there seems to be pieces missing, like chapters in a book.

Overall, this is an enjoyable ride. It does follow in the tradition of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, although it takes a grittier pass at the wuxia material. Rather than move to far into the fantasy stylized realm, this one keeps everything grounded on the earth offering up a more immediate experience. The fantasy elements and wire work that are common to the genre still exist, so this is not a complete departure.

The biggest attraction are the action sequences. There are a good number of them throughout the generous runtime. Besides the swords of the seven heroes, there are a few other interesting weapons, including a flying guillotine, a weapon I can't remember the last time I saw it. The fights are also inventive and never repetitive, of note would be the fight involving Donnie Yen while wedged in a narrow alleyway.

Audio/Video. The disk is very nicely presented on all fronts. I give credit to those behind the new Dragon Dynasty line (includes Kill Zone, Police Story, and The Protector) from, I believe, the Weinstein Company. The transfer looks very good, there is a nice desaturated look that doesn't lose detail, and retains sharpness. The audio is presented in both the original Cantonese/Mandarin presentation and an English dub (which isn't all that bad, save for how deep Donnie Yen's dubber's voice is), and sound svery good, well representing the dialogue, effects, and nice score. The original language has Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 options, while English has Dolby Digital 5.1 only.

Extras. This is a nicely loaded two disk set with plenty of information on the film's creation. Disk one has a single extra to accompany the film, a commentary with Tsui Hark (pronounced Choy Huck) and Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan. I sampled bits of the track and it is quite good, covering the production, cast, and related information in a conversational tone.

The second disk if filled with extras. First up there are 23 minutes of deleted, alternate, and extended scenes. These are in unfinished form and lack that final processing to make them look just so, they lack sound effects, and in most cases, sound at all. They are cool to see and are accompanied by segments from the score. Following that are a series of brief featurettes covering different aspects of the film, they are put together in a music video style and filled with onset footage. In addition to those, there is a slightly longer "making of" featurette in the same style as the shorter pieces. The meat of the extras on this disk is in the interviews. There is a lengthy interview with Tsui Hark, running near 45 minutes. There are three other interviews, including one with Donnie Yen. Rounding out the disk is a selection of production drawings and a gallery of trailers and television spots.

Bottomline. There is no doubt that this is an entertaining film with plenty of martial arts action from one of the masters. The story is not nearly as strong, ultimately holding it back from being a genuine classic. Still, I really enjoyed the gritty style, and I am a sucker for cool martial arts fights, which this completely delivered.



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