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October 6th, 2005

SEVEN SWORDS at last

Before I talk about finally seeing Tsui Hark's latest, let me say a few words about what it's sometimes like being the author of The Cinema of Tsui Hark.

People never cease to amaze me. Y'know, it's bad enough when someone would say (and I've had this more than twice) something like, "Oh, you wrote a book about Halloween? So did you know it was based on this Celtic holiday called Samhain?" (complete with mispronunciation, of course); but I really love some of the things I've gotten from having authored the Tsui book. And I'm not talking here about the idiots who think Hong Kong directors begin and end with John Woo, I'm talking about people who send me e-mails asking me if I didn't just hate Tsui's last film? Or how about the one time I tried to defend Tsui's Time and Tide on a discussion board, and received private e-mails from the board administrators asking me why I was trying to stir up trouble (how DARE I have doubted the board's reigning sweetheart, who had dismissed the marvelous Time and Tide with a line or two). What are these people thinking, fer christssakes?!

Which is not to say I'm automatically going to defend every Tsui Hark film - I believe, for example, that Black Mask 2 is truly an indefensible disaster - but I'm going to examine each new Tsui release more closely than most people. With the afore-mentioned Black Mask 2, for example, I'm going to suggest that the film's failure is due to Tsui allowing his manic tendencies full reign; it was simply too much offered up too quickly.

All this is by way of saying, I suppose, that each new Tsui Hark film (especially the first in several years) is a strange and interesting experience for me beyond simply that of watching the actual film. I like to think I retain critical objectivity in terms of the films, but I also feel (perhaps arrogantly) that I know Mr. Tsui more than most viewers or critics. And he always surprises me.

The build-up on Seven Swords has been especially intriguing. It was, first, a brilliant business deal, with financing representing seven different Asian nations, and a cast comprised of actors from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, and Korean (to say nothing of a Japanese soundtrack composer). Despite early reports of poor box office in Beijing (why do so many internet pundits always desperately want to believe that each new Tsui Hark venture is a failure?), it ended up as a smash hit across Asia. It opened the prestigious Venice Film Festival, despite mixed reviews.

So, here's my reaction:...I need to see it again.

My immediate take is that Seven Swords overall works well as a rousing wuxia epic, although it's not playing at the masterpiece level. Cut down from its original 4-hour running length, it feels choppy - although truthfully I'm not sure the longer running time would help, since the choppiness happens within individual scenes, as well as in the overall story. One could (perhaps arguably) say that Tsui Hark had never really undertaken a true epic before, especially not one set in largely rural locations; even Once Upon a Time in China is almost entirely citybound, and Swordsman 2 is just too damn weird to be an epic. He doesn't seem entirely sure of how to shoot the film, favoring wide angles over the closeups that a great epic needs to mix in. Every shot is utterly breathtaking, with gorgeous production design and locations, but it seems to take far too long to see what the people look like. The film seems to improve in every area as it progresses, and I'd be interested to know if it was shot much in sequence. The climax is great, with a nocturnal, fiery swordfight between the bad guys and our heroes that's genuinely impressive.

I have a feeling that the film played better on a big screen, where the actors could probably be seen amongst all the scenery, and perhaps the editing seemed more coherent. I'd also like to see the 4-hour cut, and will keep my fingers crossed that we eventually see a DVD release of that. And in the meantime...

...I'll watch the movie again, and maybe post a real review after.