The Seven Swords

China (2019) Dir. Francis Nam Chi-Wai

This is something of anomaly for me as I can’t find any sufficient information about this wu xia fantasy film at all online. Aside from the poster, a trailer, and ironically, the film itself, The Seven Swords is shrouded in mystery – it doesn’t even have an IMDb page! So, I apologise in advance if any details are vague or erroneous.

Set in Ancient China, legend tells of two reclusive men, Shen Di and Moa Huang, who in a bid to develop superhuman powers, created the Evil Eyes and its counter, the Divine Eyes. The latter has been stolen and held by the Shendaio Sect whilst the Evil Eyes is buried deep in the tomb in Asura Mountains, where the Shendaio arrive and start a fight for the Evil Eyes ensues.

Martial arts master Huiming (Wang Jianlong) sends a swordsman to prevent the Evil Eyes from falling into the wrong hands, but he is struck by a poisoned blade and is close to death. As he is carrying his baby daughter with him, the swordsman entrusts an Asura soldier Mu Lang (Fei Long) with his daughter, telling him to find his master in the Tianshan Mountains and take the baby there.

All this takes place inside the first ten minutes is only the foundation for the main story, with much of the exposition relayed through a voice over Huiming instructing his student on the saga of the Evil Eyes. But it becomes confusing as some of the things referenced in this info dump seem to relate to incidents that come later in the film, and that what we are watching is in fact a prologue.

If I hadn’t gone back to double check the details and the characters’ names I wouldn’t have noticed this, so take note should The Seven Swords ever come your way, it is not always an easy film to follow. Some of this is down to the choppy editing and the 90-minute run time explaining why it takes a while to get a grip on the rushed and involved main plot.

Carrying on with the plot recap, we jump forward sixteen years and the swordsman’s baby is now an attractive if petulant student Yi Lanzhu (An Ziyi) to master Ling Weifeng (Zhang Zhuowen), on whom Yi has a crush. Ling receives an order to leave Tianshan and head to Wu Mansion where the Shendaio are enforcing a ban on martial arts by killing off any practitioners.  

Upon arriving, they meet Liu Yufang (Chen Jie) fleeing the village with a letter from her father that can only be translated by Feng Qui (Gong Sile) of another mansion, so Ling agrees to escort Feng there. Meanwhile, King Asura (Ruan Haozong), formerly a eunuch who absorbed the Evil Eyes, has acquired five of the legendary swords and needs the final two, Youlong and Qinggan, to make one holy sword and destroy the Shendaio and become an all-powerful ruler.  

Guess who has those two swords? If you said Yi and Ling then go to the top of the class! But this isn’t the only extra seasoning to the plot, as Feng seems to get some odd vibes from Ling that cause flashbacks to her former love Mu Lang, who was missing presumed dead following the dust up at Asura Tomb in the prologue. The audience will be able to piece this subplot together much quicker than Feng but to be fair to her, a lot happened in the interim 16 years.

Some details are desperately in need of further exploration and explanation, such as why Yi Lanzhu was being varied into a deadly battle by her father – more to the point, where was her mother and what was Huiming doing sending him out to fight with a baby in the first place! Bad parenting 101 and terrible leadership from a grandmaster to boot – not a good example to set anyone.

Also needing more background is King Asura, who literally first appears seconds before grabbing the Evil Eyes. We later learn he has a dead wife, mentioned during an info-dump monologue, otherwise he is simply another aggrieved raving power hungry nutter. This might also apply to the Shendaio sect too, unless them possessing the Divine Eye makes them good guys, something else not clarified.

Now, if you were to Google this film you will most likely be directed towards the 2005 film Seven Swords from the legendary Tsui Hark. Aside from having seven swords and both being wu xia films, there is little to compare them, yet director Frances Nam Chi-Wai must be a Tsui Hark fan as he has replicated his famous 80’s/90’s style very closely here, right down to the colourful mood lighting and wire fu action.

Of course, this is a better-photographed effort and the wires are better concealed but anyone familiar with Hark’s classic work will get a kick out seeing this visual homage and how well Nam pulls it off. Then again, if Nam really wanted his film to stand out he would have invented his own style and aesthetic and bring something fresh to the genre, but if homage was his intention then fair play to him.

Whether viewed as a throwback or a tribute, there is no disguising the fact the story is way overcooked for a 90 minute film, and with having share this screen time with the rather exciting fight scenes, creates an uneven tempo in trying balance the drama with the action. It is not even a case of needing a separate film to cover each plot, rather an extra twenty-odd minutes and a condensed prologue would have helped.

Dodgy CGI, even dodgier acting from Ruan Haozong and a confused narrative don’t help The Seven Swords, except it is quite passable when it gets things right. And being only 90 minutes, it doesn’t do that much harm either. An inessential but watchable throwback at best that threatens a sequel. You have been warned!