Dir: Tsui Hark. HK-Chi-SKor. 2005. 152mins.

Hong Kong auteur TsuiHark's most ambitious film to date, Seven Swords makes for an energeticVenice curtain-raiser after the dreary plod of last year's The Terminal.

The director has talked upSeven Swords as the Saving Private Ryan of martial arts films, of areturn to basics and focus on realism.

It's true that that there isless blatant wirework and CG magical realism than Asian action fans have grownused to of late, eschewing rooftop flights or bamboo grove choreography for theclang of metal on metal and the sheer effort of lifting a heavy bronze blade.

But if this is a martialarts revolution then it's a timid one. There was at least as much battle gritand sweat in Kill Bill - on one level a parody of the genre - as thereis in Hark's irony-free piece.

The title's nod at SevenSamurai is unfortunate, as the character development, structural cohesionand moral complexity of Kurosawa's masterpiece are altogether lacking in thisconfusing story.

Continued success in theAsian market looks assured following its release earlier this summer. It hasbecome the biggest release this year in China, taking more than $10m, while boxoffice in Hong Kong has been good at just under $1m.

Outside Asia, Hark's periodmartial extravaganza is unlikely to break out into the mainstream to the levelof say Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which took more than $210mworldwide and was nominated for 10 Oscars, or Hero, which enjoyedreceipts of $175m-plus worldwide.

Sales so far include VillageRoadshow (Australia), Pathe/DES (France), Sandrew Metronome (Scandinavia),Medusa (Italy), Contender (UK) and Universuum (Germany), with others expectedduring the autumn festival season (Seven Swords plays Toronto after Venice).

Hark sets his feature in 17th-centurynorth-western China, where one plucky village holds out against an army of merciless bountyhunters who make a living from enforcing an imperial edict banning martialarts. Their defence comes in the form of seven warriors with seven swords, eachwith different characteristics.

Led by a punkette general,and wearing face-paint out of Mad Max, the villains - who have names like DaggerPoint or Trout In The Mud - are all surface, as they should be.

The only rounded character -indeed of the film as a whole - is chief villain Fire Wind (Sun Honglei); anunstable, tic-ridden, world-weary baddie, as if the Yul Brynner of The King& I had morphed into the Marlon Brando of Apocalypse Now.

In comparison the heroes areso hastily sketched that audiences need a crib sheet to sort them out. Asianaudiences will be watching the stars (some of whom, like Lu Yi and Leon Yai,have a crossover music career) and may find the choppy syntax of the film lessdistracting.

Beyond that, anyone comingout of this film with a clear idea of the properties of each of the sevenswords, their names, and the main traits of the heroes that wield them,deserves a prize.

The best advice is not toworry too much about the who, why or what and concentrate instead on thebravura action sequences - including an instant classic wall-climbing fight ina narrow corridor - and Keung Kwok-man's moody monochrome cinematography.

This works hand in hand withart director Eddy Wong's atmospheric set design, that owes more to fantasyadventures than faithful historical epic.

Grey, yellow and red are thedominant colours, often isolated and juxtaposed: as in a scene near thebeginning where the red of pennants, lanterns and blood stand out against ablack-and-white background.

As with the Lord Of TheRings films, the production uses real locations - scattered around China'sremote Xinjiang province, setting of the original novel by Liang Yu-shen - toevoke a world that is recognisably of this earth, but at one remove fromreality.

Of the three major settings,the most striking is Da Ma Ying, site of Fire Wind's half-ruined fortress:rising from the sands of the Gobi desert, this is a place of mythicalresonance, evoking lost empires, Tamburlaine and Alexander the Great. It isaltogether a fitting home for Fire Wind, a degraded philosopher princesurrounded by drunken, brutish foot-soldiers.

Production company
Film Workshop Co

Co-production companies
Beijing Ciwen Film & TV Production Co
Boram Entertainment
City Glory Pictures

Hong Kong distribution
Mandarin Films Distribution

International sales
Fortissimo Films

Executive producers
Raymond Wong
Hong Bong-chul
Zhang Yong

Tsui Hark
Lee Joo-ick
Ma Zhongjun
Pan Zhizhong

Tsui Hark
Cheung Chi-sing
Chun Tin-nam
based on the novel by Liang Yu-sheng

Keung Kwok-man

Production design
Eddy Wong

Angie Lam

Action choreographer
Stephen Tung
Xiong Xinxin

Costume designer
Poon Wing-yan

Kenji Kawai

Main cast
Donnie Yen
Leon Lai
Charlie Young
Sun Honglei
Lu Yi
Kim So-yeun
Lau Kar-leung
Tai laiwu
Duncan Chow