The era is the seventeenth century, and the place is China where the latest Emperor has decreed that the use of any martial arts are to be banned. This also means that anybody caught using martial arts is permitted to be beheaded, and as there is a bounty paid for each head certain troops are unscrupulously wandering the countryside and putting whole villages to death, simply to win the money for their heads. As we join the story, this is taking place in one village while one older man, a skilled fighter, does his best to combat the soldiers, but eventually has to make his escape. He is wounded, but not before he meets Wu Yuan Yin (Charlie Yeung), a young woman who helps him kill his pursuer and escorts him back to her village. A hamlet that will soon be under threat from the murderers...
Seven Swords, or Chat Gim if you prefer the original title, was adapted from the book by Yusheng Liang by Chi-Sing Cheung, Tin Nam Chun and the film's esteemed producer and director Tsui Hark. It's an unashamedly sweeping epic, more than a little self-involved, that manages to be busy without being frenetic. Immediately getting on the audience's side, it sets up the martial arts ban as the reason behind the plot, which no fan of such films would like to see come to pass - no more Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li movies? It doesn't bear thinking about. However, what fighting sequences there are are pretty sparsely employed for most of the running time, as the filmmakers prefer to outline the relationship side of things.
Not that the relationships are any less epic than the scenery. The main villain is the general, Fire Wind (Honglei Sun), behind the head-removing attacks, and he sends his men (and woman) out to make him as much money as possible with a variety of weapons, including that old favourite, the flying guillotine. Meanwhile, at Yuan Yin's frontier village, the locals are rhubarbing about the new arrival as the old man is recognised as a torturer employed by the previous dynasty. However, he has chosen to redeem himself by battling the forces of Fire Wind (sounds painful), and persuades Yuan Yin and her friend (who she is secretly in love with) Han (Yi Lu) to take him up to Mount Heaven where they can enlist the help of some mystical swordmen (including stars Donnie Yen and Leon Lai), and so the seven swords of the title are assembled.
As I say, the action sequences are not as plentiful as I would have preferred, and some are pretty anaemic in their staging, not really anything that hasn't been seen before. More characters are introduced, such as Green Pearl (So-Yeon Kim), a Korean slave who Fire Wind has taken as his partner, no matter that she has little say in the matter. She is liberated in one of many conflicts between the heroes and their adversaries, but now that the villagers have to leave their homes to escape losing their bonces, there seems to be a traitor in their midst - could Green Pearl still be allied to Fire Wind? It's not as simple as that, as you might have guessed, and the film travels a starkly picturesque but twisting path along its narrative. The final set piece, where Fire Wind gets to show what he's made of as far as his own martial arts skills are concerned, is excellent, a swordfight in a cramped passageway, but Seven Swords' mournful, wistful tone tends to bring down the mood of the more triumphant developments. Music by Kenji Kawai.
[The Hong Kong Legends two-DVD set has featurettes, interviews with Tsui Hark and the stars, deleted scenes, and trailers among its extras.]
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.