Kelechi Ehenulo takes a look at The Swordsman – the latest arrival of brilliant Korean action films.
You have to give writer and director Jae-Hoon Choi credit. The Swordsman – the latest arrival of brilliant Korean action films – knows exactly what it is. It’s self-aware to admit that it is not perfect. You’re not getting Shakespeare or a sweeping, Oscar-worthy epic. Instead, you’re getting a serotonin tonic of Taken meets John Wick set in wuxia Korea.
Granted, it’s a mouthful of contemporary, cinematic comparisons, but Choi’s film is relatively simple: a stylish combination of action and political drama that merits enough indulgence and curiosity to stand on its own feet.
Based on true historical events, the film is a generational tale of three swordsmen in the Joseon/Qing dynasty. Their interconnected journey shaped by shifting values and loyalties of the nation that either represents the country’s past or chart a new chapter in its future. One is Min Seung-ho (Man-sik Jeong), Joseon’s greatest military general. The other is Gurutai (Joe Taslim), considered the best swordsman in the Qing imperial family. And caught in the middle of this battle is Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), a swordsman on the verge of becoming permanently blind.
After an action-heavy opener (which positions its story as a nation resting on a knife-edge of political and societal change), the film slowly hones its craft. After suffering an eye injury during a sword battle, Tae-yul spends his life in isolation with his daughter, Tae-ok (Hyeon-soo Kim). The film plays with the expected dynamic; he yearns for peace that’s found through seclusion and separation from the ever-changing world, while she dreams of living a better life, a life of wealth and riches that escapes the confines of their village home. But as a combination, they provide pockets of hope and the occasional humour to the expectant chaos that follows.
At the heart of it, The Swordsman examines the fragility of political values and how the ruling class handles the societal qualities of loyalty, honour, respect, and dignity. To the surprise of no one, they don’t. When events threaten their existence of power, so does their corruptible, self-interested response to it, which becomes more devious and sinister with each passing moment. And notably, their actions affect their citizens. Choi’s direction showcases that undercurrent of class divide, juxtaposing between political negotiations and the turmoil inflicted on everyone else.
It makes the actions of its protagonist – Tae-yul – a compelling counterpoint. He’s a gifted fighter with a quiet yet accepted resentment towards the world, and yet he maintains whatever shreds of duty and integrity he has left and channels it through the protection of his daughter. If Choi was instigating an argument about how you can’t just sit on the sidelines while the world turns itself into a turbulent mess, then it a measured point. “The wailing of the world will reach your ears” is as close to poetry The Swordsman evokes because sooner or later – regardless of your societal position – that truth will eventually land on your doorstep.
And when it lands, it comes in an offer – a scenario where Tae-ok is deceived with a life of servitude to move up the social ladder. It’s all a ruse, a ploy for the ruling class to sacrifice others to save their own daughters from any negotiations.
Some would argue that for a depiction of a complex and tumultuous time in Korean history, Choi’s storytelling examination is far too predictable. That is undeniably true. It feels unfinished; many of its thematical interests are given a light brushstroke and rushing to conclusions. Characters operate on the briefest of requirements and objectives to fulfil their part in the film. And there’s no escaping the male-dominated gaze, where female characters are used as sacrificial lambs for a diabolical slave trade deal or victims to barbaric attitudes (both verbal and physical) – adding ‘fuel to the fire’ for male characters to enact their rage. The lack of depth to convey its ideas are notable. But for all its imperfections, it makes up for it in other areas.
There’s a tendency with films to over-edit their action sequences (think Taken 3 and the numerous cuts used for Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills jumping over a fence). Thankfully, The Swordsman avoids those trappings, each movement staged and choreographed with breathtaking levels of athleticism. It’s a ticking time bomb in expectation, and what helps keep the engagement high is its gradual escalation in its stakes, culminating in bouts of violence and brutality. How does a blind swordsman survive a gun battle with the enemy? Choi’s film has a direct answer for every predicament, and Hyuk’s performance as the reserved, monotoned, ‘speaks when I need to’ warrior only amplifies its power and enjoyment.
Joe Taslim as the villainous Gurutai chews up every scene – toxicity personified wrapped in an arrogant, calculating, and manipulative smile reeking of entitlement, privilege, and desire for superiority. He’s a villain you love to hate, and the brilliance from Taslim’s performance comes from how much he relishes every moment and opportunity with the character.
Besides a few dodgy VFX shots, the reward comes from its compelling drive to keep its momentum constant through its lush cinematography by Won-ho Son and its highly committed action scenes. Sure, there are better films out there that have accomplished more than what The Swordsman provides. But at one hour and forty minutes, it’s a breezy satisfaction for the senses.
The Swordsman is available in the UK on DVD and digital May 17 and on Blu-ray May 24.