Seven Swords: Special Presentation at TIFF

Seven Swords is one of the most beautiful films at the festival this year, a pictorially sumptuous martial arts epic that successfully weds the style of classic wuxia pictures with a surprisingly strong western (the genre, not the hemisphere) flavour. It's not in the same over-stylized league as Zhang Yimou's Hero, but then, Yimou generally let his photographic sense get the better of his storytelling intentions in that film; Swords is more user-friendly, but ultimately less satisfying. It's a grand old tale, to be sure, but it has difficulty connecting with the audience: seven swords means a lot of main characters, and throwing another half-dozen into the mix on top of that makes for a crowded starting line. There are a lot of plates spinning here, and like so many whirling martial arts maneuvres, not all of them land intact.

In the film's opening sequence (a lovely visual sequence constructed almost entirely in medium grey and bright red), we are informed that during the Qing Dynasty, an imperial decree made it illegal to practice martial arts. The government is paying bounty on the heads of any and all martial artists, and an opportunistic general (Sun Hong-lei, chewing great tracts of scenery) has decided to form a private army to make a whole lot of money by chopping off peoples' heads. He has targeted a small village (called Martial Village, natch) as his next project. Desperate to defend themselves, the villagers - lead by a former executioner seeking redemption - assemble a crack band of martial artists to wield seven eponymous swords, each of which comes with its own personality.

Here's where we start getting into trouble, because honestly, some of the swords have more personality than some of the swordsmen. (The one whose blade slides back and forth inside the grip is particularly neat.) A few of the characters are well fleshed out: there are two representatives from the village itself, Han and Yuanying, who are given good stead; the old executioner, Fu, serves adequately in the general role; a Korean ex-pat becomes more important as the story goes along. Who wielded the other three swords? I can't really remember. The film fails to differentiate them from the teaming masses surrounding the heroic clique. Perhaps they just weren't important.

On the whole, the film fares better with its women than its men; Yuanying is a lovely character, ably played by Charlie Yeung, who looks like a prototypical Michelle Yeoh and has the gumption to match. There's also a slave girl named Green Pearl who is redeemed almost in spite of herself, and a teacher named Fang who must defend the village's children. Both of these women are central to the storyline, and there's also a delicious, white-faced goth assassin working for the bad guys (who are never quite as much fun after she's been dispatched). The women stand out in this picture and stick with you afterwards; the boys are far less memorable.

Director Tsui Hark does an excellent job of creating a vast, epic canvas for his storyline; Seven Swords is a film that begs to be seen on the big screen, and feels huge in such a satisfying way that one might almost be able to overlook the relative drabness of the plotting and overall character work. There are adventure foibles and romantic foibles; there are quests and double-crosses and battle after battle after battle, all pitched at the personal level rather than the Lord of the Rings-y, watch-armies-collide style. It's amiable enough, but after two and a half hours, we're ready to move on. The film exits with grace, and so do we. Call this match a draw: neither was bloodied, but neither won.

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