Directed by Tsui Hark, starring Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Donnie Yen, Liwu Dai, So-yeon Kim, Duncan Lai, Chia-Liang Liu, Sun Hong-Lei, Liu Kia-Liang, Lu Yi, Ma Jingwu, Leon Lai, Duncan Chow and Tai Li-Wu.

A true epic, Chinese film 'Seven Swords' has something for everyone. Martial arts? Check. Mysterious hermit and master of swords? Check. A beautiful slave? Yep. Doomed love stories? Aplenty. Self-sacrifice and betrayal? Here as well. Director Tsui Hark manages to fit all these - and more - into the two-and-a-half hour running time of this adventure, which is adapted from the book by renowned wuxia (martial arts) writer Liang Yusheng.

The story is set in the 17th century, after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty. With the excuse of enforcing a law that bans martial arts, the greedy and amoral General Wind Fire (Hong-Lei, making the most of a spectacular baddie role) has brought death to North-Western China, his forces ravaging villages throughout the land and collecting gold for each innocent head that they deliver. He has his sights on Martial Village but someone has gotten there before him. Reformed executioner Fu Qingzhu (Kia-Liang) is trying to warn suspicious villagers about Wind Fire's intentions but no one will listen, instead determined to hang him for his previous wrongdoings - apart from Wu Yuanyin (Yeung) who decides to smuggle him away from the village with her former lover Han Ziban (Yi).

The trio travel to Mount Heaven to seek help from the master of swords, Master Shadow-Glow (Ma Jingwu). Fu is given The Unlearned Sword that he surrendered at some earlier date, Wu and Han receive The Heaven's Fall Sword and The Deity Sword, respectively, and four disciples of the master - Chu Zhaonan (Yen), Yang Yuncong (Hong Kong megastar Lai), Mu Lang (Chow) and Xin Longzi (Li-Wu), all with their respective swords - are ordered to help protect Martial Village. With seven warriors for seven unique swords, their heroic journey begins.

Apparently the original cut of 'Seven Swords' was four hours long and traces of the cuts can be found in the plot holes left behind by the missing hour-and-a-half. This confusion is compounded by the fact that the film has about eight actors in lead roles, each with a story and past to be explored. Although it is more character-, rather than action-driven, 'Seven Swords' also has martial arts but of a more down-to-earth nature than other films of the wuxia genre, such as Ang Lee's fantastical 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (2000), and Zhang Yimou's 'Hero' (2002). Choreographed by acclaimed action director Lau Kar-Leung, there's little use of wires, with the action sequences placing more importance on realism than special effects. Each of the seven swords has been crafted with distinctive features and functions, an element which will perhaps become clearer in the promised director's cut DVD, and Wind Fire's warriors - especially his bloodthirsty female deputy - are an impressive blend of stylised goth and unusual weaponry.

Although occasionally confusing, any lovers of the western genre will find much to admire in Tsui Hark's 'Seven Swords'. And, with a series of sequels promised to develop the story, this is only the start of their adventures.

Caroline Hennessy