Seven Swords (2005)

seven swords

“One day you will die like me.  Squatting.”

The Scoop: 2005 NR, directed by Tsui Hark and starring Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, and Hong-Lei Sun.

Tagline: None

Summary Capsule: A rousing martial arts tale full of action, adventure, and walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Oh god, they’re still walking!  Why won’t they stop walking?

Al’s rating: I wasn’t really able to fit it into the review down there, so I just want to mention that I am totally into the punk-rock Goth warrior chick.  She completely steals this movie.

Al’s review: I like martial arts films.  I don’t have a love affair with them like some people do, but I certainly have gone on a few kung-fu benders in my day. I can name the famous directors and actors. I can appreciate a well-shot or well-choreographed action scene.  I even like to believe I can enjoy the movies that are more plot and dialogue than punching and kicking. Despite that, I find myself in a quandary over Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords. There’s not enough action to recommend it to the casual martial arts fan, and the plot is too scattershot to recommend to the Once Upon A Time in China crowd.  And yet I liked it.  Only not really.

Our story takes place in 17th century China, when the emperor of the newly-ascended Qing Dynasty declares a ban on martial arts and sets a bounty on anyone caught using them.  The mercenary general Fire-Wind now leads his armies across the countryside, slaughtering anyone he finds and collecting their heads for payment.  His next stop is the peaceful Martial Village, whose denizens are all martial arts practitioners by tradition but don’t really know how to fight.  When the village receives advance warning of the attack by Fire-Wind’s former executioner, Fu, he convinces to two peasants, Han and Wu, to follow him on a quest to Mount Heaven where a reclusive group of warriors reside.

Fu, Wu, and Han convince four fighters to help in the defense against Fire-Wind. Each fighter carries a unique sword with a special ability, all forged by their leader, Master Shadow Glow. Fu, Han, and Wu receive special blades as well and Shadow Glow declares their group “The Seven Swords.” They return to Martial Village just in time to fend off the attack, but the town must be abandoned and now the Swords must instead attempt to lead the villagers to safety.

It’s a fairly good plot, partly meant as an homage to Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai (aren’t they all?), but once the story gets moving and the refugees get on the road, everything sort of falls apart.  They walk and squabble, bicker and walk, with nothing much in the way of action to break things up.  They interject a plot about a traitor who is marking their trail for Fire-Wind, but it never really gets wrapped up to any satisfaction.  Instead we get walking and walking and walking. Sometimes we’re lucky and someone almost dies from a poisoned stream, but mostly?  Walking.

Now, I consider myself a reasonably patient person, but I fell asleep four times during the middle of this movie.  Over the course of 156 minutes, a dozen plotlines are stopped and started and not one of them managed to keep my interest.  One of the Seven tries to teach an ex-concubine to be a free woman. One of the Seven takes on a young protégé.  Wu can’t seem to figure out how to work her sword correctly. Han has relationship problems with his kindergarten teacher girlfriend.  Most of these don’t even get a real resolution. Heck, I’m not even entirely sure where the Seven Swords were going with the villagers.  I generally like my movies to have characters with depth and background, but if you’re just going to bring stuff up and then not follow through, I’d rather you forgot about it entirely.

Probably the most frustrating thing about the wasteland in the middle of this movie is that it’s bookended by some really fantastic action.  The weapons that the Seven Swords use are beautiful and incredibly cool to watch (particularly Wu’s sliding sword) and the villains are awesome, basking in their comic-booky malevolence.  Wirework is certainly present, but not to a distracting degree, and the final fight with General Fire-Wind is mesmerizing.  In fact, every time someone draws a weapon in Seven Swords, the movie perks right up. It just doesn’t happen often enough to really save it.

Director Tsui Hark has talked a lot about his original four-and-a-half hour cut of Seven Swords, and despite my complaining about this being a long, slow, and boring movie, I think I would watch that in an instant.  The film has a lot going for it, even if it doesn’t sound like it.  What I saw didn’t feel finished. Plots are left hanging, characters lack motivation. A few important ones even lack names. Something really good, possibly great, is lurking under the surface of Seven Swords.  I’ll admit that four-and-a-half hours would be a long time to read subtitles, but, given what I just sat through, two-and-a-half hours clearly wasn’t long enough.

Again, I say: Totally awesome. And tell me she couldn’t play Asajj Ventress in a Clone Wars movie.


  • The seven swords forged by Master Shadow Glow are named The Dragon Sword, The Unlearned Sword, The Star Chaser Sword (my favorite), The Heaven’s Fall Sword, The Transience Sword, The Celestial Beam Sword, and The Deity Sword.
  • Tsui intended Seven Swords to be Part 1 in a hexalogy of films based on Liang Yusheng’s book, Qijian Xia Tianshan (Seven Swords of Mount Heaven). Although no official plans for a sequel have been announced, the scripts for Parts 2 and 3 are reportedly in development by Hark himself.
  • The director personally designed all seven swords wielded by the heroes.
  • The deities shown in the film were created by the art department to avoid any religious controversy.
  • Like her character, Green Pearl, actress Kim So Yeon speaks only Korean and needed a translator for the entire shoot.
  • Chia-Liang Liu (Master Fu) fell seriously ill with pneumonia after filming the fight in the river.  Several planned action sequences involving his character needed to be cut or rewritten.
  • I am amazed that the big spiky yo-yo manages to be that ridiculous and yet that awesome at the same time.
  • I refuse to believe that no horses were harmed I the making of this film.  They toss those things around like beanbags.
  • Did you notice the camels? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kung-fu film with camels.
  • How many times can you put Han’s girlfriend in peril during one movie?  Seriously?
  • I love watching Wu with the Heaven’s Fall in the final battle.  So improbable, but so very cool.

Groovy Quotes

Fu: You must run away, or you will all become names on plaques.

Han: I’d rather fight ‘til I die than beg on my knees! It is better to die on your feet than die on your knees!

Fire-Wind: Fine. Let’s forget we were ever friends.  Let’s wait and see how powerful the Seven Swords really are.
Fu: We were never really friends. As for the Seven Swords, no need to wait. It has already begun.

Fire-Wind: Get my horse!  We’re going after them!
Soldier: They fed the horses a laxative. Now they are sick. None of them can run!

Yun-Chong: Let your mind go. The sword will follow.

Fire-Wind: Look at them. Yesterday, they were lovely children. Today, they’ve become beasts. We all turn into man-eating beasts.

Dongluo: The price of truth is life.

Fire-Wind: One day you will die like me.  Squatting.

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