SEVEN SWORDS directed by Tsui Hark, written by Chun Tin-Nam and Cheung Chi-Sing, with Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung and Liu Chia-Liang. 152 minutes. Subtitled. A Seville Pictures release. Opens Friday (March 2) at the Royal. See Indie & Rep Film Listings, page 86. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Tsui Hark, Hong Kong's most ac complished director, mixes Crouching Tiger-style wire-work fantasy with a Sergio Leone-like grittiness that wipes away the glossy, somewhat inhuman sheen of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. What gets emphasized is the real human suffering beneath the glories of mystic swordplay, producing a profoundly anti-violent action movie.
Tsui is credited with launching Hong Kong's New Wave with his 1979 debut feature, Butterfly Murders. He served as producer and/or co-writer on most of John Woo's key films, including The Killer and A Better Tomorrow 1 and 2.
He brought women out of the women's picture ghetto with Peking Opera Blues (1986) and revived the wire-work fantasy genre while launching Hong Kong's special effects industry with Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain (1983).
In 1991, with Once Upon A Time In China, he recreated Wong Fei Hung, kung fu cinema's central character, and launched the decade's kung fu boom. Four years later, he overturned his own elegant display style of action to make The Blade, whose impressionistic visuals and cutting made kung fu a nasty, painful business where nobody wins.
He keeps that impressionistic style in Seven Swords. Screen time goes to the physical and psychological damage done by the battles, while the swordplay itself whirls by in a thrilling blur. It's the villagers who gain our sympathy far more than the mystic swordsmen who've come to help them battle a mad general who's chopping off heads for money.
Tsui makes his points clear with a pair of villagers who receive mystic swords but haven't a clue how to use them.
As the general, Sun Honglei gives us one of the most complex and interesting villains in Hong Kong movie history. His erotic obsession with runaway sex slave Green Pearl (Kim So-Yeon) is frighteningly real. Kim and Donnie Yen, as the most mystical of the swordsmen, also do well with their jagged, inarticulate romance.
In the action scenes, Tsui strikes a fine balance between chaos and the telling detail that keeps everything coherent. The drama moves fluidly from the epic to the intimate, so the story never feels long despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time.