A very serious thought occurred to me as Tsui Hark's Seven Swords laboured towards its predictable conclusion. Here I was witnessing seven super swordfighters inflict improbable defeat on enough bad guys to populate Preston. Yet only four of these heroes seemed exceptional, with a talent for well-timed lines and crucial scythes of their personal swords. The other three really need not have been there, so little did they contribute.

As the group hurriedly assembled during the film's early stages, before riding off to save the world, it had seemed imperative that there be seven. Perhaps because seven is a lucky number; also such an amount of outlaws has met with previous celluloid success, as in The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai. I wonder what would have happened if there had been only six Magnificents, or six Samurai?

The trivial nature of such considerations casts light on the cinematic importance of this latest Asian export. Whereas some films can induce avid viewers to inspect themselves, or look differently upon a place, or a person, Seven Swords has the power only to make you imagine a fictional situation inside already fictional films. In short, Hark's contribution is not especially relevant, nor important.

Its sole purpose is to entertain. To this end it has a plot, which is predictable and illogical, a favourite combination for action flicks. In early 17th century China, a new ruling has outlawed the practice of martial arts, in turn rewarding those who can bring the heads of its remaining practitioners with bags of cash. Entranced by the money, a nasty group of renegades tour the more remote lands and kill as many innocents as possible, passing them off as kung-fu criminals to get rich quick.

When these villains focus their attention on Martial Village (something of an obvious target), they run into trouble in the shape of a group known collectively as the Seven Swords. Formed on the peaceful slopes of nearby Mt Heaven, this septet of saviours set out to restore the peace in these Chinese wildlands by winning epic fencing duels. Each member has his own mystically powered sword to aid him in his heroic task. Along the way they encounter love, treachery and indisputably insane opponents - all rather unsurprisingly.

Hark squeezes every last popcorn moment he can muster out of the plot. Fight scenes of bewildering sword combat make conscientious use of the loitering props - chairs, crates and candlesticks are among the wasted haberdashery. There's perhaps one too many of these sequences, although the film just about retains interest as a usefully distracting couple of hours. Most notably, it is beautifully shot over gorgeous terrain, spotted with elegant peaks, pretty forests and sweeping views. This does seem like a place worth fighting for.

There is undoubtedly a need, if not a demand, for action movies in our society, but ones as skilfully shot and put together as Seven Swords infuriate as much as they delight. Instead of squabbling on ridges, wouldn't a denser, more serious film be a worthier test of Tsui's ability? Perhaps now is the time for something different?

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2006
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A 17th century band of swordsmen defend villagers from murderous gang
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Stephen McMorland ***

Director: Tsui Hark

Writer: Chi-Sing Cheung, Tin Nam Chun. Tsui Hark, based on the novel by Yusheng Liang

Starring: Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Donnie Yen, Liwu Dai, Michael Wong, Jinghu Zhang, Duncan Lai, Yi Lu

Year: 2005

Runtime: 153 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea/Hong Kong/China


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