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Friday, Sept. 30, 2005

There's just no beating Kurosawa

Seven Swords

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Tsui Hark
Running time: 153 minutes
Language: Mandarin (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Oct. 1
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Hong Kong director Tsui Hark did a lot for Asian action-fantasy cinema back in the 1980's and '90s with such indelible films as "Chinese Ghost Story," "Once Upon a Time in China" and "The Swordsman." And yet, while you'd be hard-pressed to find a director who did more to push Hong Kong's signature wire-action style, it was art-house directors like Taiwan's Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and mainlander Zhang Yimou ("Hero," "Lovers") who appropriated this style and broke it internationally.

News photo

Hark took a stab at a Hollywood career (a la John Woo) with the mainstream Van Damme action thriller "Double Team" in '97, but fortunately for movie-goers, it didn't pan out. Hark returned to Hong Kong and his Asian roots, and his latest -- a martial arts epic titled "Seven Swords" -- is being positioned here by Warner Bros. as a riposte to "Hero," et al. Actually, the film's hard-edged action and insanely speedy stunts hearken back to an earlier Hark film, 1995's "The Blade," which predated his rivals by a good few years.

Set in the Manchu-era China of the 1660s, in the northwest where the terrain ranges from dusty steppes to snow-swept mountain peaks, "Seven Swords" offers a loose adaptation of the novel by Liang Yu-Shen, "Seven Swords From Mount Tian," the sort of book that Chinese boys read instead of Tolkien. Its story is straightforward enough, but Hark's cut-to-the-chase direction makes the story muddier than it need be.

We start at the site of a massacre. In a remote village the inhabitants are being cut down by a group of marauding soldiers who look like something out of Mordor or maybe a Japanese Goth-Lolita band. They're mercenaries led by a general named Fire-Wind, who execute villagers to collect 300 coins per head from the emperor, which can't do much for his tax base. (True, there's also a ban on practicing martial arts, but that scarcely covers the women and children cut down.)

One man escapes and warns other villages of what is coming. He saves the life of a peasant woman named Wu Huanyin (Charlie Young), who, with a young hothead named Han Zhibang, make a bee-line to Mount Tian to contact a mysterious group of warriors with almost supernatural powers. There, the duo are given swords, and together with five other warriors, they arrive back in their village just in time to defeat Fire-Wind's raiders in a pitched battle.

The violence in these scenes is a lot harder than anything in "Crouching Tiger" or "Hero": Heads are severed; villagers are skewered, screaming, on pikes; and amputated limbs lie twitching on the ground. Before anyone mistakes this for bowing at the altar of "Saving Private Ryan" realism, however, allow me to point out that there's plenty of running up walls, rooftop leaping, corridor straddling and other impossible stunts aided by wire-action. Magic brutalism, anyone?

Hark picks up more speed in a scene where the heroes trash Fire-Wind's fort in a daring raid, which features all the best stunts and more than a few jokey ones too. But everything's downhill after that, culminating in a final showdown between the Seven Swords and Fire-Wind that just goes on forever, as final battles in these kind of films tend to. Really, it's enough to send one scurrying back to the joys of a four-second sumo bout.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with "Seven Swords" is too many characters, all of them ill-defined, a situation that's made worse by how Hark obscures their faces with hair, hoods and hats till it becomes nearly impossible to tell who's who.

A pair of romantic subplots featuring Charlie Young and Korean TV actress Kim So Yeun as Green Pearl, a rescued slave-girl, help define a few of the swordsmen, but most consist of nothing more than their signature fighting technique.

This stands in marked contrast to that classic of swordsmen films, "Seven Samurai." Hark's film shows well the advance of technique over the years, with frenetic flurries of combat that Kurosawa couldn't have dreamed of. But perhaps, given the technique, he would have refrained anyway. Kurosawa's film lay well within a world that, however exaggerated, was based on the one we all live and breathe in. Hark's, on the other hand, is pure comic-book hyperbole, too loud, too fast and without a moment for reflection. Perfectly of our times, but less likely to last.

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