Hong Kong based, he is credited with reinventing the genre with some trailblazing pictures, Once Upon a Time in China being the most obvious.
The production company he founded with his wife, Film Workshop, has churned out a string of classics, including A Better Tomorrow, which powered Chow Yun Fat to superstar status. A true legend of the ‘Wuxia’ genre, as it is sometimes known.
Unfortunately for him, the genre has been reinvented again recently, and by someone else. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did martial arts a favour, by bringing it to the mainstream, but also set the bar incredibly high. Seven Swords, Hark’s latest movie, will inevitably be judged by this standard.
Early Qing Dynasty China is the setting. Fearful of rebellion, the newly installed Manchu Emperor has decreed martial arts to be illegal, and placed a bounty all those who practice it. A bloodthirsty mercenary army, led by the vicious Fire-Wind (Sun Honglei), is sweeping the country, slicing off any heads they can find in return for thousands of pieces of silver.
The army finally reaches the outlaw town of Martial Village, with the intention of leaving no-one alive. But when repentant old executioner Fu Qingzhu (Lau Kar Leung) convinces villagers Han Zhibang (Lu Yi) and Wu Yuanyin (Charlie Yong) to accompany him to Mount Heaven, the haunt of an ancient swordsmaster, hope is rekindled in the form of a band of seven swords, who will risk their lives to protect the villagers.
Though it sounds like a remake of The Magnificent Seven, it is in fact based on the Liang Yusheng’s 1970s novel, Seven Swords from Mount Heaven. As writer, director and producer, it’s completely Hark’s movie, and he attempts to distance himself from the more balletic Crouching Tiger and Hero by bringing some old fashioned gore and violence back to martial arts.
The fight scenes, which make up most of the movie, are certainly entertainingly visceral, each character wielding a more bizarre weapon than the last. Razor sharp umbrellas, nets made out of knives and plenty of scythes all add to the fun, while some of the gothic painted bad guys are definitely worth watching, even if they do look like members of KISS.
But when the fighting stops, the flaws are exposed. It suffers from its multiplicity of characters, whose back stories are hastily thrown in and poorly fleshed out. The plot is threadbare, with characters making the most irrational decisions merely to get to the next piece of combat.
It even suffers from some surprising inconsistencies from such a veteran film maker, one conversation in particular snapping from midday to early evening between sentences. In fact, the whole thing feels jumpy, odd changes in pace and tone make it hard to follow and even harder to take seriously.
Put bluntly, your ability to enjoy this will depend on how much you like the genre, which is, to be fair, the type of film Hark has been making for decades. And just because some martial arts films have appealed to a much wider audience doesn’t mean they all should. At the same time, though, this is no classic.