The Swordsman (Cert 15)
Digital/VOD/1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Cine Asia) Running Time: 100 minutes approx.
Release Date – May 17th/ Blu-ray – May 24th
It is natural instinct to protect what is important to us be it a person, possession, or an ideal. The latter usually occurs in a professional capacity, mostly among people with strong political convictions. Sometimes an overlap affects one’s personal life too, leaving us to make very difficult decisions.
During the Ming-Qing takeover of the 17th century, incumbent Ming ruler King Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung) flees the palace in Joseon as the Qing insurrection begins with his newborn baby daughter, flanked by his personal aide Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), and royal swordsman Tae-Yul (Lee Min-hyuk). But when Gwanghae is accused of murdering his siblings to remain in power, Seung-ho joins the enemy and fights a loyal Tae-Yul, leading to Gwanghae sacrificing his throne to save his people.
15 years later, Tae-Yul (Jang Hyuk) lives peacefully in the mountains with his teenage daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) having sheathed his sword for good. However, his eyesight is failing and is suggested to try treatment in Joseon. Whilst in the city, Tae-ok is offered the chance to be a live in carer for Gwanghae’s ill mother, but instead catches the eye of Qing slave trader Gurantai (Joe Taslim) who takes Tae-ok as part of his latest round up of Joseon women. This forces Tae-Yul to unsheathe his sword once more.
Based on true historical events (although mainly domestic audiences will know what they are) The Swordsman is an earnest action drama from debutant director Choi Jae-hoon that has more in common with Japanese chanbara films and Chinese/Hong Kong wu xia than your usual Korean period piece. This is quite a heady gene pool to source from and on the all-important swordplay front, it offers plenty to get excited about.
Yet, it also needs a stirring story and Choi has gone for a rather sedentary revenge type scenario with a touch of Korean palace intrigue to build the slashing and cutting around. This puts certain character at a distance in understanding their motives or relating to their attitudes, but remains sufficient in establishing the fact there will be a messy fallout from all the duplicity and political showboating.
Seasoned genre fans will no doubt expect Tae-Yul to be a Korean version of legendary Japanese blind swordsman Zatoichi, except his eyesight is only failing, not completely gone; plus, Tae-Yul is younger, less vulgar, less sexist, and certainly less troublesome. Jumping back between the past and the present timeline, we learn of some of Tae-Yul’s past and how he became the royal sword, as well as the incident that injured his eyes.
Time has allowed Tae-Yul to mellow but he still keeps his wits about him to protect Tae-Ok, using his cane (inside which his blade is concealed) and fighting skills to deflect any physical challenges. Like most teens, Tae-ok is keen to see the big wide world and despite her love for Tae-Yul yearns for a life without poverty, but is mature enough to put his eyesight first. Tae-ok even volunteers to go to Joseon alone but Tae-Yul is having none of it.
Once they arrive, they find local women and children in cages, having been round up by Gurantai, who, as cousin of the Qing king, believes he can act with impunity. The idea is to make Gwanghae capitulate to Qing demands by using his people this way. Meanwhile, Tae-ok and Tae-Yul meet Hwa Seon (Lee Na-kyeong), a trader who brokers the deal to have Tae-Ok become Gwanghae’s live in carer and foster daughter, in exchange for the herbs to treat Tae-Yul’s eyes.
Why a foster daughter too? Well, that is the dramatic intrigue which defines Gwanghae’s character as either a man of the people or a man simply out for himself (i.e. like anyone in power) as well as have Tae-Ok end up captured by the villainous Gurantai. Earlier, I suggested the Asian film influences – when Tae-Yul finds out about Tae-Ok’s abduction, things assume a Taken vibe as he sets out to bring her home.
And so the bloodshed begins. Recalling Takashi Miike’s samurai hits 13 Assassins and Blade Of The Immortal (also found in Tae-Yul’s appearance), the action sequences consist mostly of one vs. dozens scraps, depicting Tae-Yul as a Terminator-like killing machine, slicing and dicing his way through Joseon and never blinking. But he is not infallible, having taken his lumps by the time he faces Gurantai in the intense climax.
Boasting superb choreography, the fights are given time to breathe rather than be a blur of quick cuts every second; moves and blows are allowed to be digested and appreciated before the next one lands. With minimal CGI or wire work, this old fashioned balletic duelling blades is a treat to watch, as well as testament to the cast for their commitment to learning this difficult skill and making it look credible on screen.
Chief among them is Indonesian star Joe Taslim, who talks in a sinister whisper just in case we didn’t get he was the evil antagonist, really giving Tae-Yul what for by infusing his sword work with some native flavour. Jang Hyuk manages to be cool and deadly in robotically carving up his enemies, whilst veteran Jung Man-sik brings the gravitas. The script luckily gives the female members a bit more to work with than damsels in distress, allowing Kim Hyun-soo to deliver a charismatic turn as Tae-Ok.
Visually, the presentation is stylish through Son Won-ho’s sumptuous photography but still suffused with the bucolic grittiness of the period setting, aided by a grim, muted colour palette. This is not a case of style over substance, however, but an extra fifteen minutes of so to delve deeper into the Ming-Qing dispute would help international have a better understanding of how and why this such a volatile situation.
The Swordsman provides a prime slice of historical swordplay action and entertainment to please genre fans. And if the implied sequel happens, this is a great start for Choi Jae-hoon and cinema’s newest blind swordsman hero.
Korean 5.1 Language
Original Theatrical trailer
Rating – *** ½
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