A magnificent seven bands together to save villagers from annihilation in "Seven Swords," a muddled, occasionally gripping but way overlong pic that marks Hong Kong helmer Tsui Hark's return to prestige filmmaking. Much-ballyhooed production opened softly in Asia in late July and doesn't look likely to impress Western viewers.

A magnificent seven bands together to save villagers from annihilation in martial arts Easterner “Seven Swords,” a muddled, occasionally gripping but way overlong pic that marks Hong Kong helmer Tsui Hark’s return to prestige filmmaking. Much-ballyhooed production opened softly in Asia in late July and doesn’t look likely to impress Western viewers, who will be alienated by the movie’s confused narrative, shortage of characters to root for and repetitive action. A drastic re-edit to around 100 minutes could work better overseas, with this version (or Tsui’s unseen three-hour cut) available for genre fanatics on DVD.

Film is based on the much-read novel “Seven Swordsmen From Mount Tian,” by Liang Yu-sheng, one of the fathers of 20th century Hong Kong martial arts fiction. When Tsui became involved in the production some three years ago, it grew into a huge multimedia project, with a 74-part TV series, an online game and comics planned, plus a sextet of movies. Current pic’s ending sets up things for a possible sequel (“They’ll send more killers like Fire-Wind”), but at present no one’s holding his breath.

Asian auds familiar with the novel aren’t going to get much from this adaptation, which effectively just uses the title, plus shavings from the plot and characters. Western auds looking for a fresh take on the genre after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” are likely to be disappointed by the lack of overall visual style and the only average action sequences.

Most disappointingly, considering its moniker, pic hardly gets into the myth and magic of swordsmanship and manufacture. The seven heroes are fuzzily distinguished, and there’s little discussion of the nature of heroism.

Tsui and designers Eddy Wong, Poon Wing-yan and Shirley Chan have gone for a grungily garbed, sometimes color-desaturated look that owes as much to “Conan the Barbarian” or “The Lord of the Rings” as it does to Asian swordplay movies. (Opening sequence, which uses just blacks, whites and reds, also features a female punk warrior who’d look more at home in a Derek Jarman movie.) But aside from covering a lot of the actors’ faces, making character identification even harder, Poon’s costumes seem arbitrary rather than part of a broader vision.

From his choice of landscape (various locations in China’s remote Xinjiang province) to character development and dramatic tone, Tsui rarely follows through on anything here, more content to butterfly hither and yon. His past films — especially his more fantastic martial arts movies, like “Zu Warriors” or “The Legend of Zu” — shared the problem, and although “Swords” has little of those pics’ head-whirling cutting, Tsui’s inability to focus on the longer dramatic line is a prime fault in a heroic yarn like this one.

Story opens in the 1660s, after the (Manchu) Qing dynasty has been established in China. To keep nationalist uprisings at bay, an imperial decree has gone out banning the study or practice of martial arts on pain of decapitation. Decree has led to the rise of a bounty-hunter class, with 300 pieces of silver paid for each wrongdoer’s head.

Biggest and most ruthless of the hunters is Fire-Wind (Sun Honglei), a bald psycho who lives in a massive yurt-like structure on top of a hill. (Think James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian.”) Fire-Wind’s next target is Martial Village, a small community in dusty northwest China.

Confusing opening reels, which intro a swathe of characters with no backgrounding, basically center on two Martial Village youths, tomboy Wu Yuanyin (H.K. actress Charlie Young, dubbed) and her onetime b.f., Han Zhibang (Lu Yi), who rescue a retired executioner from the villagers’ wrath. The old guy, Fu Qingzhu (famed martial arts director Lau Kar-leung, aka Liu Chia-liang), persuades the youngsters to let him get help for the village from the legendary warriors of Mt. Tian.

Four of the swordsmen come down to help the villagers, including Yang Yunchong (Leon Lai), for whom Wu slowly develops a liking, and Chinese-Korean Chu Zhaonan (Donnie Yen, mostly dubbed into Korean). Chu takes such a liking to Fire-Wind’s Korean captive, Green Pearl (TV drama star Kim So-yeon), that he abducts her, seriously pissing off Fire-Wind.

First 50 minutes will make auds restless, as the plot bends every which way, characters aren’t clear, and the action’s dusty realism and closeup camerawork wear out their welcome. However, when the Seven Swords confront Fire-Wind and infiltrate his fortress, pic does momentarily perk up, with some welcome humor.

Finally, when our heroes reach Martial Village, there’s an attempt to distinguish the various leads and give them personalities, though only Yang and Chu properly shine through.

Final 70-or-so minutes follow the Seven Swords and the villagers as they’re pursued by Fire-Wind and his thugs; the unmasking of a traitor in the Swords’ ranks; and a final showdown at Fire-Wind’s fortress.

Tsui has taken this realistic, grungy approach to martial arts before — in the immensely superior, much more consistent film “The Blade” (1995). “Swords” has flashes of visual style, and some intimate moments, but doesn’t build the slightest head of emotional steam.

Young, who came out of retirement to play the tomboyish Wu, fares better than most of the cast in projecting a personality. But beefy Mainland thesp Sun Honglei walks off with the picture as Fire-Wind.

Technical credits are OK, though widescreen lensing is sometimes a bit fuzzy and colors variable. Kenji Kawai’s score is at its best, like the picture as a whole, when it’s just simple and bombastic and not trying to be clever.

Seven Swords

Hong Kong-China-South Korea

Production

A Beijing Ciwen Film & TV Production Co. (China)/Boram Entertainment (South Korea)/City Glory Pictures (Hong Kong) presentation of a Film Workshop Co. (H.K.) production. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Tsui Hark, Lee Joo-ick, Ma Zhongjun, Pan Zhizhong. Executive producers, Raymond Wong, Hong Bong-chul, Zhang Yong. Directed by Tsui Hark. Screenplay, Tsui, Cheung Chi-sing, Chun Tin-nam, based on the novel "Seven Swordsmen From Mount Tian" (Qi jian xia tianshan) by Liang Yu-sheng.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Keung Kwok-man; editor, Angie Lam; music, Kenji Kawai; production designer, Eddy Wong; costume designer, Poon Wing-yan; visual designer, Shirley Chan; sound (Dolby Digital), Liang Zongwei, He Wei; action director, Lau Kar-leung; martial arts choreographers, Tung Wai, Xiong Xinxin, Lau Kar-wing; associate producer, Cheung; assistant director, Li Qianyi. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (opener, non-competing), Aug. 30, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival, Special Presentations.) Running time: 151 MIN. (Mandarin, Korean dialogue)

With

Chu Zhaonan - Donnie Yen Yang Yunchong - Leon Lai Wu Yuanyin - Charlie Young Fire-Wind - Sun Honglei Han Zhibang - Lu Yi Green Pearl - Kim So-yeon Fu Qingzhu - Lau Kar-leung Liu Yufang - Zhang Jingchu Xin Longzi - Tai Liwu Mulang - Duncan Chow Liu Jingyi, Village Head - Jason Lau Qiu Dongluo, His Deputy - Chi Kuan-chun Master Shadow-Glow - Ma Jingwu The Duke - Michael Wong
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