Review Date: 4/15/10
Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Young, Zhang Jingchu, Lau Kar Leung (Liu Chia Liang), Honglei Sun, Kim Soo-Yeon, cameo by Michael Wong
Wow. This movie was on the bottom of my backlog DVD pile, which means that I still have five year's worth of DVDs that I've bought and haven't watched yet. Unbelievable. I wonder if I'll ever get caught up? Anyway, this is Tsui Hark's adaptation of a martial arts novel called "Seven Swordsmen From Mountain Tian" which concerns an imperial edict to execute all martial artists. When a peaceful village is threatened by Fire-Wind (Honglei Sun) and his army of merciless killers, five swordsmen come down from Heaven Mountain to protect the villagers. Two other swords from the mountain are given to villagers Han and Wu (Charlie Young), and they take their place beside the other swordsmen. After evacuating the village, the swordsmen realize there's a traitor in their midst, which creates tension among everyone and leads to the inevitable showdown with Fire-Wind.
First of all, this is a big budget period piece and it looks absolutely fabulous. No expense or detail was spared and the cinematography is just gorgeous. All of the actors are excellent, and it was great to see Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, and master Lau Kar Leung in action. It was also delightful to see the beautiful Charlie Young again, looking fantastic and even getting to swing around a sword. Zhang Jingchu is a dead ringer for Zhang Ziyi and is breathtaking to watch (I had to triple-check and cross reference this to convince myself that it wasn't actually Ziyi). However, it's Korean stunner Kim Soo-Yeon who provides the most intoxicating eye candy in the film. She is simply astounding, and captures the essence of her character's sad fate perfectly. The film's most astonishing scene shows her getting raped while she single-mindedly feasts on the food that's in front of her. It's raw and vicious, and yet passionate and poetically beautiful. (it reminded me of another sensual rape scene that Tsui Hark crafted for The Blade (1995) ).
The action scenes are excellent and the swordplay is lots of fun. Donnie Yen handles the majority of the action, but everyone gets a piece. The action scenes incorporate a lot of wire stunts, but they're reasonable and not outrageous. Curiously, the biggest letdown in the action department is the lack of blood, which should be spraying and splashing all over the place in a film like this. Unfortunately, the film suffers most from sluggish pacing and its two and a half hour running time. As Tsui Hark ages, it seems his films are becoming slower and more meditative, and "Seven Swords" definitely lacks the kinetic frenzy and visual mayhem of his earlier works. The craftsmanship is superior, but it just feels slow and tired. Another oddity is the Western sounding music score. It's quite good, but sounds completely out of place in the context of the film. I found it to be a constant distraction, and it deflated a lot of the dramatic tension. While it may represent the pinnacle of Tsui Hark's craft, it made me long for the vibrancy of his early 90's work.