This TV series is based on the novel by Liang Yusheng. How close this series is to the novel is uncertain to me. However I do know that some of the characters in the series can be found in other Liang Yusheng novels, particularly “The White Haired Demoness” (Baifa Mo Nu Zhuan). According to the opening episodes of the series, the lead male protagonist in the novel, Zhou Yihong is actually the old sifu, Master Shadow Glow, Reverend Huiming who bestows the seven swords to our heroes. Whether this is in the original novel or not is another story.
It is no secret that the series makers of this series, most notably, Tsui Hark intended this to be a homage to movies like “The Seven Samurai” and the western, “The Magnificent Seven”. In fact, some of the early episodes featuring the mysterious master swordsman, Fu Qingzhu (played by veteran star Yu Chinghui) even borrows some of the background music from the old Italian westerns with Clint Eastwood.
The actors are famous series and movie actors but they are almost unrecognizable because of the costumes, makeup and the meticulous performances by each of the actors who remain faithful to their characters. Whoever did the direction for the performances of the actors did an excellent job. Along with the portrayals and costume design is the gritty look of realism that seems to characterize the work of filmmaker Tsui Hark.
The realism that we see in the series is conveyed in the performances of the actors and the graphic action scenes of the sword fighting. It is easy to criticize the series for this raw look but we cannot help but to marvel at the sterling portrayals, the stunning cinematography and the excellent set design. Even though I do not like the ending, I nonetheless appreciate the look of the whole series.
Liang Yusheng’s “Seven Swordsmen” does carry over characters from his other novels. Thus this story is a direct sequel of “White Haired Demonness”. Fei Hongqin (Ada Choi), the bandit queen of the Desert Eagles is the martial arts child of Yuo Luo Cha. Master Shadow Glow, Huiming is said to be Zhou Yihong. Ada Choi reprises the role she made famous from the earlier TVB series “Romance of the White Haired Maiden” where she played the title character. However, her role in “Seven Swordsmen” is a clear departure not only because she plays a different character but also because Fei Hongjin shows contrasting emotions of love and hate coupled with an attitude of world-weariness. The White haired Demonness haunts Fei Hongjin throughout this series but in the end Hongjin becomes her own person.
Our story begins at the start of the Qing dynasty. The Manchurians have gained military control over the central plains. The last vestiges of the Ming dynasty are being ruthlessly wiped out. The symbolic shaving of the forehead is being enforced on the Han peoples. Nonetheless there are pockets of resistance. In particular a small village controlled by the pro-Ming Red Spear Society is holding out against the Ming army. They are being led by a hardened village master, Liu Jingyi (played by the great veteran actor Bryan Leung) and his beautiful young daughter Yufang (Wang Likun). The village is under a siege attack when a mysterious master swordsman arrives to save the day. His formidable prowess with the sword and with military strategy becomes evident to the villagers. The swordsman is Fu Qingzhu (played with finesse by Wu Chenghui) a master assassin from the previous dynasty that had been responsible for the deaths of many martial arts pugilists. Fu Qingzhu is portrayed as a no nonsense unpretentious fighter who makes clear to the villagers that they will be all killed if they do not get help soon.
Eventually the villagers are persuaded to get help but are nonetheless suspicious. The young people of the village especially Yufang, Han Zhibang (played by Zhang Bo) and Wu Yuanyin (played by the ruggedly handsome Sang Weilin) help to underscore the threat to their fellow villagers. Zhibang, Yuanyin and Fu Qingzhu decide to go to Mount Heaven to get the help of the most powerful master in the martial world, master Shadow Glow (Ma Jingwu). When our three protagonists get to Mt. Heaven, Fu Qingzhu tries to persuade the great master to let his disciples, Chu Zhaonan (the now legendary, Zhao Wen Zhou), Mulang (Qiao Zhenyu), Xian Longzi (the great martial artist, Ji Chunhua) and Yang Yuncong (comprehensively portrayed by Wang Xuebing) to come to the villagers' aid. At first the aged sifu refuses but Zhibang is tenacious and eventually the aged master agrees.
Master Shadow Glow then bestows the seven swords on each of the seven protagonists. Each of the seven swords has a unique power which augments the abilities of Fu Qingzhu, Chu Zhaonan, Xin Longzi, Yang Yungcong, Mulang, Zhibang and Yuanyin but in the series it is the Dragon sword of Zhaonan and the Transience sword of Yuncong that will prove to be the most potent weapons. How this is achieved will not be realized until key moments in the series. This is one spoiler I should not give away.
The swordsmen ride off to the music of the “Magnificent Seven” (albeit briefly) and arrive at the village which is now under siege by the Qing General Nalan Xiuli (portrayed with versatility by Eryang). The long siege worries the Qing prince Duo Geduo (played capably by Ray Lui) who comes to the aid of his general. Nonetheless through the brilliant strategy of Fu Qingzhu, the villagers manage to escape the siege. Duo Geduo is obsessed with the knowledge that a child descendant of the Ming dynasty is still alive. Yufang is given the responsibility to protect the children and apparently one of the children, Xiaopi is suspected of being a young Ming prince.
A vicious battle is fought where many villagers are killed but a small remnant still manages to scatter and hide in a small hamlet near Hangzhou. While they are escaping one of the Red Spear society is really a spy for the Qing and starts to give away their escape route. The traitor tries to project suspicion onto the seven swordsmen, in particular, Yang Yuncong.
Yancong leaves the escaping villagers in order to maintain his innocence. Zhaonan also runs into trouble when he is captured by Duo Geduo. Before his capture while on the way to Hangzhou, Zhaonan sees a beautiful dancer he becomes infatuated with. After his capture, the dancer shows up again only this time she too is a prisoner of Duo Geduo and his Qing troops. The tragic story of unrequited love, apparently a recurring theme in series’ based on Liang Yusheng stories, repeats itself here as Zhaonan is rescued by the dancing girl only to have the rescue end tragically. The sequence between Zhaonan and the beautiful Green Pearl (played believably by Edell Ai) I will leave unsaid. This sequence has some stirring moments. This sequence also features a moving performance from Andrew Lien Kai as Qing general, Wind Fire.
Zhaonan all but disappears from the sequence of events as the story focuses on the events in the desert where in episode 14, Fei Hongjin finally shows up played beautifully by the ravishingly lovely Ada Choi. She is the scarlet clad bandit queen of the Desert Eagles, a roving band of fighters plaguing the Qing dynasty in its desert outposts. In this sequence Yang Yuncong shows up with his sword. He befriends a young couple and a wandering minstrel with a melodious voice, Aierjang (Askar) who happens to be the former lover of Fei Hongjin. Fei Hongjin and Yuncong then connect and band their efforts against Duo Geduo. They are joined by Chu Zhaonan who wanders in from somewhere in the desert.
Meanwhile in the Qing camp problems are arising. Emperor Hongxi (Xie Zhenwei) is a wise and enlightened man who seeks to pacify relations with the Han peoples but power hungry generals like Nalan Xiuli, Duo Geduo, and Aolong thwart his wise policies. They all see the emperor as weak. Aolong attempts a civil coup against the emperor and Duo Geduo’s camp. In time, the smarter Duo Geduo overcomes; the emperor is abandoned by all his generals and even his own mother. In this sequence of events, Fu Qingzhu nearly kills the emperor himself but Qingzhu realizes that it would be futile to do so and ends up trying to rescue him instead. Duo Geduo sees his chance and reconsolidates his power behind the empress mother. The emperor disappears from view as he turns his back on the palace and his own mother.
Nalan Minghui (portrayed by the beautiful, Li Xiaoran), the general’s daughter, walks into our story. She is the princess, the fiancée of Duo Geduo. She hates power hungry violence and killing. In one of Fei Hongjin’s ill-advised raids against Geduo, Yang Yuncong is nearly killed. Minghui rescues him and secretly nurses him back to health. Yangcong and Minghui fall in love. She attempts to release him and eventually goes to the desert with him to orchestrate his freedom.
In Hangzhou the Red Spear society hooks up with the local leader of the Red Spears in the city. In this sequence the series picks up to a fever pitch. Zhibang becomes the leader of the Red Spears as the focus of the Red Spears and the seven swordsmen becomes the destruction of Duo Geduo. Chu Zhaonan pretends to be a traitor in order to get close to Geduo. Fei Hongjin is deeply hurt and jealous when Yuncong reveals his love for Minghui. However Hongjin's love is genuine as she does not totally abandon Yancong.
Minghui discovers a red undergarment amongst Yangcong’s things and although she thinks of going with Yancong to Mt. Heaven, she gives up hope when she discovers the garment. Minghui returns to Geduo but she is whisked away to a secret hideout when she realizes that she is pregnant with Yancong’s child.
Events converge on Hangzhou as all the lead protagonists confront Duo Geduo and some of his vicious co-antagonists, a group of martial artists who help him try to destroy the Red Spears and the seven swordsmen, particularly the powerful evil swordsman Qi Zhenjun (played brilliantly by Sun Jenkui). His fight scenes against Yang Yuncong, Chu Zhaonan and Fu Qingzhu are a wonder to behold. These scenes rank among the best martial arts fights in movies or TV series.
The final denouement has both tragedy and triumph as the Seven Swordsmen fight with Duo Geduo’s troops. Fei Hongjin determines her own destiny in the end and overcomes the haunting presence of her great former master, Yuo Luo Cha. It is easy for me to want to be critical of the series but the acting, the art direction, the directing, the set design, the casting direction, the cinematography and the martial arts scenes are sooooo good that I give this series ***** stars in all of these categories. The gritty realism is bothersome but the uncompromising quality of the series overcomes everything else.