September 18, 2005


SEVEN SWORDS is clearly a movie about the US invasion of IraqTsui Hark has made the most interesting movie so far about the insurgency in Iraq, and I'm surprised no one else is talking about it. SEVEN SWORDS is so clearly a movie about the US invasion of Iraq, and a celebration of the insurgents who are fighting back, that I'd be surprised if it could even get an American distribution deal. I'm not trying to suddenly make this movie unmarketable, but I really did think that there's no way to argue that 7 SWORDS is about anything else.

Check this out for a plot: the Emperor is worried about weapons of mass destruction (ie, martial arts) being used against him and so he declares that no one but his soldiers can study martial arts. He sends his army, clad in clunky body armor and wielding exotic weapons, out into the rocky, inhospitable desert to conduct raids on villages where it's rumored martial artists lurk. There's massive collateral damage as the baddies wipe out women and children along with the insurgents. Then, out of the mountains of Tora Bora...oops, I mean Mount Tian, come seven swordsmen who are pure of heart and soul. They engage with the superior invading forces and beat them through a combination of super skills and booby traps. Later they have to hide refugees in mountain caves and the Emperor's army bombard them with artillery. Within the ranks of the insurgents there are people from the previous dynasty who served as the Emperor's torturers, now making an uneasy peace with their former victims as they fight back against the invaders, there are collaborators, traitors, and foreign fighters. Maybe there's too much Newsweek in my diet, but this sounds so much like the situation in Iraq that I can't imagine Tsui didn't intend parallels.

But maybe all this is just some fever dream fantasy I concocted to keep myself occupied while watching 7 SWORDS, because there wasn't a lot onscreen to do it for me. It's not a bad movie, but it's a deeply unsatisfying one. With 7 SWORDS and seven swordsmen to wield them you'd think that Tsui would have his hands full trying to keep the characters straight but instead the movie is really about: a) an old horse; b) a Korean slave; c) a kid who has to learn to stand up for himself d) a village that has to learn not to be too judgemental and it isn't until we get past those four plot points that we get to e) seven swordsmen.

The original cut was 4 hours long, and I'd be interested to see it, but so much of what I did see had a "been there, seen that" vibe that I'm not sure two more hours will help. The bad guy, Fire Wind (no indigestion jokes, please), is played with relish, and mustard, and sauerkraut and all the gooey fixins' by Sun Honglei, and he's a blast, but the other actors are not so tasty. Leon Lai plays a guy who sounds like a fortune cookie every time he opens his mouth. Donnie Yen does strong dark and silent. Lau Kar-leung is poorly dubbed and he's barely onscreen in the second half of the movie. Xiong Xin-xin reprises his clubfoot role from ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2. Everyone else is interchangeable. Even the climactic action scene is thrilling until you remember that it was done bigger (and better?) back at the end of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2 (with Donnie Yen as well, no less). 

The 4 hour version may not make a better movie but it could go a long way towards explaining the geography. Much is made of the advance of Fire Wind's army on the peaceful village ("Eek! They're 300 hundred miles away!"), but suddenly it turns out that the village is a four hour pony ride from the bad guy's giant fortress. Fast ponies, I guess. Even after the villagers flee, it still doesn't take more than a couple of hours to get back to Fort Bad Guy from wherever they are, which is weak tea from a director who's always had a firm grip on the spatial relationships in his movies.

The one person who should be lobbying to keep the 4 hour version out of stores is Michael Wong. Hong Kong's favorite white man has a decent cameo as The Duke, but less is always more with the good Mr. Wong and another 10 minutes of his role may ruin the magic.

September 18, 2005 at 11:21 AM in Reviews | Permalink


i have seen this movie, but still hoping for the 4 hour version.

in the end im just glad van damme is not in this.
for that thank you tsui.

terima kasih.

Posted by: AkuSuka Movie Reviews | Sep 19, 2005 1:32:03 PM

I have seen this film and let me tell you I agree towards some of your points. A few scenes do not make sense and leave the film disjointed. If the 4 hour version were made available, it would probably fill in the gaps that exhist.

Posted by: jerome | Sep 22, 2005 12:10:06 AM

wow, yeah, when Tsui Hark was making this movie, he was just sticking it to George W., 'cause it was about war, and I guess only Americans are capable of fighting wars. That novelist must've been a prophet, coming up with this plot based on a real part of Chinese history 80 years before World War 3.
This is a movie that's tired of all the other historical epics out there, where every guy fights in the war for some great ideological/ personal reason, where there must be swooping crane shots of two armies clashing, where, if there is kungfu, people must be beautiful and balletic. It's a new type of choreography with new type of camerawork. With small personal stories that take foreground of some kinda looming tragedy. No thinly veiled ideologies, no complete character arcs or "visible motivations" or whatever, just seven swords kicking ass. We're in a state right now where people are actually looking to identify the cheese in historical epics and would deem one as "bad" otherwise. I also didn't understand the "been there done that" comment, I've never seen the type of weaponwork and choreography in this movie (maybe a little bit in The Blade).
Xiong XinXin's not even in this movie. He was a stunt double sometimes, but that's cool, mistaking bald Chinese guys for each other as they protest the American-Iraqi war. Sure.

Posted by: Pete | Sep 22, 2005 12:36:09 PM

Umm, honestly i had doubts about your interpretations of the plot. Do you know the chinese history well? Chinese insurgencies against the last (Manchurian) dynasty had been depicted in several movies. I doubt Tsui Hark, a director that had no past in making politically-aggressive movies, is actually mocking the US invasion. (Ps: You pretty much against the war right?)

Posted by: Ang Jun Siong | Sep 27, 2005 9:36:31 AM

Oops, on that Xiong Xin-xin appearance. For some reason (probably because he did some of the choreography) I had it stuck in my head that he was in this movie - probably wishful thinking more than anything. Consider it retracted and thanks for the correction.

As for interpreting a movie: none of us will ever know the intentions of the director. I mean, who would've thought that A CHINESE GHOST STORY 2 is Tsui Hark's only June 4 statement, not A BETTER TOMORROW 3 which actually has a stand-off between a guy and a tank. Should we not enjoy a movie that a director didn't enjoy making, or enjoy a movie he did enjoy making even if we don't like it? Once a movie is released, it's out there in the world for people to have any opinion they want, and there's no such thing as a wrong opinion, despite what folks on the internet would have you think.

You don't like my interpretation of the movie, okay. But don't pretend your interpretation is correct because it ain't.

And, no, I don't think the movie is a protest against the war, but I do think it's sort of funny that when you look at it the way I do, you have a triumphant ending with anti-government terrorists riding off into the sunset to kill the emperor. Hooray!

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 27, 2005 1:23:11 PM

I never understand why people are so hostile to subtext. What's wrong with reading political criticism into popular movies? It's fun! (One day I'll share with you my theory of how the Powerpuff Girls movie is really about America's relationship with Saddam ... )

Anyway, kudos to Grady. His review is the one thing that has made me want to go and see what is, I'm sure, basically a bloated load of rubbish. I'm only worried that watching the film will be a lot less fun than reading the review.

Posted by: Rob | Sep 27, 2005 11:20:06 PM

Oddly enough, I seem to have a real problem with Xiong Xin-xin. The first published review I ever wrote of an Asian movie was back in 1997 when I wrote a review of THE BLADE for the old fanzine, ORIENTAL CINEMA. This was before I was on the internet to check things and my enthusiasm far out-stripped my knowledge (which is often still the case). I was basically guessing at who was who in the cast and claimed that the actor known as Xiong Xin-xin was actually a young girl playing the lead role in the movie. All of you are chuckling and stroking your beards and thinking, "Of course, that's Song Nei," but I had no clue at the time.

However, I do think that Xiong Xin-xin in a wig and a pretty dress might have pulled off that role as well.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 28, 2005 7:06:13 AM

well, you'd be one step closer if you made the same mistake in this review, since Xiong XinXin was credited as the main girl's stunt double.
and I didn't have a problem with reading into movies, nor political criticism...etc., I just thought it ridiculous to be so American-centric that you can't even view a Hong Kong film without red blue and white colored glasses.

Posted by: pete | Oct 4, 2005 8:56:47 AM

When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Ring, he follows the main theme of the original novel. Similarly, the Harry Potter series consult J. K. Rowling when WB made the movies. Both movie series follow the main themes of the original novels while only changing minor unimportant issues. Now, Tsui Hark's Seven Swords (and another his previous movie) used the names of the characters from the novels, but the story is totally different. If he wants to make his own point or create his new story, why did he copy those names from the original novels? That will make those who have read the original work think the director is kind of "showing sheep heads but selling dog meats". I felt sorry for Liang Yu Sheng and Jin Yung when I watched this director's work.

Posted by: Jady | Mar 10, 2006 12:38:38 PM

lol You actually believe this movie is about the US invasion of Iraq? This movie is about the Manchurians taking over sovereignty of China and establishing the Qing Dynasty in the mid 1600s. Its a historical epic movie which has also been made into a 40 episode series. Try watching the series then you'll understand whats going on in the movie.

Posted by: Badmojo | Oct 23, 2006 6:09:31 AM

Lol I can stand it read your review. hahaha... so it means, we can also assume that Liang YuSheng the author of the Seven Swords novel as a greatest phophet of all time??? or maybe he's one the anti bush movement or perhaps saddams fans :))
what a laugh of century...

Posted by: DuGu9Bai | Oct 31, 2006 4:56:20 PM

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