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April 29, 2006

Seven Swords


Chat Gim
Tsui Hark - 2005
Deltamac Company Region 0 DVD

While I was initially pleased by the commercial success of Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, it now seems that several Chinese language filmmakers are intent on topping Ang Lee for diminishing rewards. Tsui's newest film is even more of a disappointment because he had previously set the bar for Hong Kong filmmakers in the 90s. Previously counted on to be both commercial and idiosyncratic, alternating between epic story telling and screwball comedy, sometimes in the same film. Tsui's most recent films have become less interesting perhaps as a result of the greater commercial demands placed on them. Even Tsui's best film since his misadventures in English with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Time and Tide was the work of a director in search of direction, sythesizing the "bullet ballet" of John Woo with some of the abstact imagery of Wong Kar-Wai. The madcap drinking contest and general antagonism between Nicholas Tse and Candy Lo leading to an uneasy relationship were the few reminders of Tsui's earlier work. One could almost describe Seven Swords as resembling Once Upon a Time in China with digital effects added, minus the heart.

In terms of the martial arts sequences, Tsui hasn't really changed that much in the fifteen years since he began that Jet Li trilogy. That's not necessarily a bad thing as wire work and characters held in mid-air suspension have become the current cliches of action films. But what Tsui seems to have forgotten is the intimacy and interaction of the characters is what makes his films worth seeing, and indeed seeing again. The strength of the first two Once Upon in China films is in the delicate relationship between Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan. Likewise, the unrestrained buffoonery between Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen sets the stage for The Chinese Feast.

Tsui has been quoted as saying that he wants Seven Swords to be his equivalent to the Lord of the Rings films. The story of six swordsmen and one woman travelling through China, fighting for the Chinese and Koreans enslaved by the Manchurians, has the hallmarks of a national, and nationalistic, epic. The problem is that Tsui has devoted more energy towards the technical side at the expense of characters who are unaffecting and barely distinguishable from each other. It is the bad guys, dressed to look like a deadly version of the KISS army that are identifiable by their make-up and names like Hell-Sting and Mud-Trot. It is the actress who plays the sadistic Kuolo, seen above, who could have stolen the film had she not been killed off about midway into the story.

Some of the actors in Seven Swords are familiar faces both in Hong Kong film and previous Tsui films, like Leon Lai and Donnie Yen. The women seem cast at least partially for their resemblance to actresses associated with Tsui. With the exception of the actress identified as Chen Jiajia as Kuolo who takes on a part that would have been played by Brigitte Lin twenty years ago, the other actresses recede in the memory of such Tsui team players as Maggie Cheung, Sally Yeh and Rosamund Kwan. Only Korean actress Kim So-yeon comes close to making an impression as the conflicted former slave to the war chief, Fire-wind.

It may be telling of the state of Chinese language films in the U.S. that Seven Swords has not been picked up for release here. Time and Tide was Tsui's last film to get theatrical distribution here, failing to attract much of an audience even by foreign film standards. Zu Warriors was bought and shelved by Miramax. The English language Black Mask 2 a film even sillier than Tsui's work with Van Damme, went straight to video. Tsui's pursuit of being the making films that represent the state of the art in technology has again forgotten that a compelling story is the greatest special effect.

Posted by peter at April 29, 2006 12:50 PM