From venerable Hong Kong director/producer/writer, Tsui Hark, comes a partial silver screen adaptation of Liang Yu-Sheng’s novel “Seven Swordsmen from Mountain Tian”. The popular Wu Xia work has already been made
into a seventy-four part TV series, so it’s no surprise that the original cut of the film reaches four hours. But presentation and storytelling, both essential to cinema, are two different
things… In a time when visually sumptuous feasts such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers provide emotive depth and to-die-for “wire fu”, Seven
Swords might seem lacking to some—though not for its use of special effects.
For hardcore Hong Kong film fans, it’s easy to make excuses for the film’s serious flaws—because it is possible that the near fifty percent trim from the original screwed up the
narrative; however, the technical blemishes are really nothing a knowledgeable director and editor collaboration can’t remedy. Tsui, responsible for the Once Upon a Time in China series and A
Chinese Ghost Story, directed, produced, and wrote this trimmed, stop-and-go epic. It’s presented with a gritty, albeit Zen-like, grace but considering the film’s exclusive genre, and
the narrative inanity of Tsui’s previous works (Legend of Zu, the Black Mask flicks), you can’t seriously expect a whole hell of a lot of plot sense to accompany the magnificent fight scenes.
The two hour, ten-odd minute version I watched dithers horribly in execution, but at least the backdrop is interesting; set in ancient China (the mid-17th century), the emperor of the newly minted Ch’ing
Dynasty decides to ban the use of martial arts throughout the land. To impose this decree, bounties are paid to anyone who can catch and punish guilty practitioners by way of
decapitation. Mercenary armies cavort around the countryside slaughtering indiscriminately and massacring entire villages for the sake of amassing silver. Since head count equates with wealth, the general of the richest group,
a ravenous, giggling killer, is seen as the epitome of evil. Seven skillful warriors (technically five with two novices) brandishing unexplained, mystical swords eventually set out to
vanquish this foe and protect life, but hope in the long run to turn the ban on martial arts. The rural parts of feudal China are as barbaric and bleak as they’re depicted in the mainland television
productions, but with better location and photography—both adding immeasurably to period romanticism. Even though it does try to balance its major failings with bouts of impressive cinematography and spectacular choreography,
Seven Swords won't be an easy picture to sit through if you value clear-cut narrative. Without story for glue or insight, all of the jaw-dropping, wushu artistry (compliments of Donnie Yen) isn't enough to run the gamut
from A to Z, much less A to C; the movie's acute lack of focus was probably felt by the composer, because it's a shame what happened with the music…
Having essentially grown up with Kawai Kenji’s music—it all started with the first Debiruman (Devilman)—I’m vaguely disappointed with the turn out of this score. Best known
for his creative work in anime and frequent collaborations with acclaimed director, Oshii Mamoru (Ghost in the Shell, GitS 2, Patlabor, Avalon), Kawai scores Seven
Swords in a way that’s mind-boggling. Yes, it’s logical for a film’s music to be confused about emotional continuity when genuine sentiment (other than fear and psychotic
bloodthirstiness) barely registers on screen. It’s beyond confusing, however, when ideal emotions are superimposed on what’s essentially an aloof, insubstantial film.
Most pieces fall into the category of pulsing battle narrative (‘Massacre Rhapsody’, ‘Trial and Conquest’, ‘The Attack Aftermath’, ‘To Hell and Back’); the perfunctory cues consist mainly of strings, horns
(including the Indian trumpet of all things), drums, and rigid synthwork, while melodies basically mimic the ebb and flow of conflict. Nonetheless, the Kawai understands that post-battle
lulls usually offer moments of reflection or emotion.
‘In Search of Beauty in Life’ stands out on the album as a lush, melodic piece with the oddest phrasing; beginning like a string lament, it morphs almost into a subdued hymn, and wanes before exploding into the motif
from “Ode to the Seven Swords”… only to end abruptly. Without seeing the film, your imagination can conjure up any number of sensible, coherent events to fit the music. But in movie reality, this poignant cue
immediately follows a horrible attack; there are many casualties, but the camera doesn’t linger long on anyone and languidly trails after the idiosyncratic swordsmen. Crammed in moments of agony, shrewdness,
forced humor, perplexing lust, and ambiguous intrigue play out during the elegiac hymn, and erupt into a sudden impulse to watch the sunrise. (It’s an extraordinary “what the hell?” moment.) The horseback riding and sun
gazing are accompanied by a full, galloping minute of the (partially developed) main theme before it ends all too soon. During those moments, it’s somewhat painful and distracting to note the
emotional hit and miss of the score. Kawai half falls into the same trap as Ottman—for his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang score, in that both follow the film so closely that they feel that must chronicle everything for
continuity’s sake. Ottman’s musical nuances are excessively relevant and detailed while Kawai vacillates between capturing all and spreading music too thin. In the end, both only wind up sounding redundant—which isn’t
great for keen listeners.
Overflowing with character details (not all relevant) and distinctly lacking in lucid exposition scenes, Seven Swords doesn’t have much, in terms of genuine substance, to
offer its composer. So on top of charting a non-existent, emotional course, Kawai opts to score the scenery, combat, and capture the heavenly spirit of the swords. ‘Fire From Heaven - Mount Heaven Serenade’ is
one of the album’s highlights, and narrates a very messy montage of shots that culminate in a period of cryptic deliberation. It’s a far more interesting piece without the images; the cue briefly
illustrates one of countless, monumental occasions (with rousing strings and pounding percussion) before dissolving into a haunting and reverent synthesized vibe—very reminiscent of Avalon.
In the filmic aftermath of confusion, and lots of snow, odd cuts of unconscious people are shown alongside stoic swordsmen that appear from nowhere. (Here Kawai draws from his work on Ghost
in the Shell 2, and finesses into the track some interesting use of Gagaku (Japanese court music) vocals and instrumentation.) The musical passage evokes an almost out-of-body trance with complex percussion, ethereal winds, and wordless female
wails. The setting may be appropriate, but none of the dialogue resonates with the music. This sort of discombobulating disconnect happens one too many times throughout the movie.
In ‘Woman From Yonder’, more of the Ghost in the Shell Gagaku flavor emerges in the form of rests, ethnic horns, and percussive reverb. The scene is tense while introducing the mysterious Korean woman, Green Pearl; upon
being captured by the evil general, Fire-Wind, she is made an example of while his observing army, like restless hyenas, waits for violence with bated breath. The cue works for the scene, making it into an exotic, dangerous setting, but it strips from it the sense that it’s Chinese. Why more traditional
instruments weren’t used is an aesthetic choice I can’t explain (again—why the Indian trumpet?), but Kawai’s score often gives the film a feeling of otherness. ‘Going Home - Ambush in the Mist’ is another example of sheer aesthetic weirdness; when borderline Japanese
music joins in on an impromptu, poignant moment between two Korean outsiders, it’s difficult to say if anyone would feel the proper emotions… whatever they are.
Another flaw in this ponderous work is countless deviations from basic plot, especially those that have no real bearing on the storyline or characters. Han Zhi-Ban is one of the two fresh, mystical sword recruits, and in his old peasant life
(at the start of the picture), he was a horse wrangler. (If Tsui felt the detail gave Han a modicum of depth, it only detracts from oh—everything.) Nevertheless, at a point in the film, it becomes necessary to release
the horses for a diversion; ‘Setting the Horses Free’—an extended scene dedicated to mild uncertainty and imbibing scenery, is a lush string arrangement, absolutely devoid of the battle motif, that’s allowed to crescendo into a soaring,
embodiment of romance. I suppose Kawai had no choice by to fill the scene with music, but had editing been improved five-fold, the track wouldn’t have been necessary.
The only piece in the whole of the album I couldn’t take to was ‘Children at Dawn’. The wide-eyed children (later orphans) are nothing more than contrived plot devices, props! Why an entire cue, with a chorus
of lah-ing children (in the major key), would be dedicated to these grim props running in slow-motion, accompanying post-traumatic madness, grief, and redirected death is beyond my understanding. This track, like several of
the mismatched cues, throws the movie further out of whack. When relief is forced, affection's feigned, or happiness is fumbled, there's no sense in expressing anything a second time—or letting moods bleed into unrelated matters.
Kawai Kenji is obviously capable of more and has proven it time and time again—Avalon and Ghost in the Shell 2, being his two most recent magna opera.
If Seven Swords left him creatively, intellectually, and emotionally marooned, it would explain the quasi-indescriminate autopilot approach to composition… because it really feels like he didn't give a flying fig about the film.
In-Film Rating: 2
Standalone Rating - with and without any knowledge of the film, or as a score for something else entirely: 3.5
Michael McLennan adds:-
This enjoyable release from Recall Records does not contain any score additional to the release on EMI Music Hong Kong.
The Recall Records release benefits from the inclusion on an video interview with Tsui Hark, and English-language liner notes
introducing the basic premise of the film. However, the lack of detail on the performing ensemble - fully specified in the EMI
Hong Kong release - is an unfortunate diminuation. While I haven’t seen the film, it certainly has its appeal on album - a bit
like Chan and Garcia’s score for Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, if less rich. Recall are to be credited for their ongoing
efforts to bring less likely arthouse film music to the CD-buying public.