Movie Review (GFF): ‘The Swordsman’ is a Visual Delight for All Audiences Eyes
Director: Choi Jae-hoon
Writers: Choi Jae-hoon
Stars: Jang Hyuk, Kim Hyun-soo, Joe Taslim, Jung Man-sik
Synopsis: A swordsman who is going blind is forced to raise his sword again to save his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a slave dealer.
Korean culture is becoming more dominant every year. From the musical styling of K-Pop to the delicious food, to the frankly astounding cinema, it feels like the Asian country is becoming the cultural epicenter of the world in some ways. While so many Korean movies – from Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy to Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus Parasite – are modern-day parables, few are period pieces. Choi Jae-Hoon’s The Swordsman changes all that. Set during the Joseon dynasty in the Lunar year of 1623, and using accurate historical knowledge with more than a little artistic license, The Swordsman features excellent martial arts, impressive swordsmanship, and beautiful attention to period detail. Its plot is slightly predictable in that it follows along the same lines of its martial art movie forebears, but this doesn’t detract from it being a well told, and engaging piece of cinema.
Tae-Yul (Jang Hyuk) is an aging swordsman who once swore fealty to an emperor. After a coup – led by Seung-Ho (Jeong Man-Sik) – dethrones said emperor and leaves Tae-Yul almost completely blind, the swordsman retires to the mountains to live a quiet life with his daughter Tae-Ok (Kim Hyun-Soo). He lives in peace for a number of years before war comes to his door: caught in the struggle of the transition of power between the Ming and Qing dynasties, Tae-Yul must reckon with Qing soldiers (led by a fantastically menacing Joe Taslim – who you might remember from Gareth Evans’ The Raid – as Gurutai) who come into town looking to cause trouble. Tae-Ok is caught up in the middle of this and eventually captured by Gurutai and his men, meaning Tae-Yul must unsheathe his sword and venture down the mountain to save the only thing left in the world he cares about.
Although in the opening moments featuring Tae-Yul and Seung-Ho facing off, The Swordsman is a riotous, gripping action thriller, it slows down significantly straight after. Early scenes are plodding; there’s a lot of exposition needed to lay down the tracks for what’s to come. However, although the first act featuring Tae-Ok vying to get off the mountain and live her own life slows the plot down, the tension driven by Gurutai and his thugs ensures things are kept lively throughout.
As mentioned, The Swordsman follows some pretty traditional beats from classical martial arts movies. The main components of the Hero’s Journey – as represented in just about every Bruce Lee movie – are there: the hero receives a call to action, which he promptly refuses in a rather sullen fashion until an external force compels him to take up arms. What most will likely come to The Swordsman for is, well, the swordplay. And it doesn’t disappoint. Each fight is choreographed to perfection and the editing does well to keep up with the action rather than simply cut every time someone swings a sword – a problem other martial arts movies have had in the past. Talim himself is an expert in martial arts and it shows, but Jang Hyuk as Tae-Yul is the really impressive one here. Early scenes find him fighting using only his cane, and the movements are incredible. It’s hard not to be invested when the action is this smooth and compelling. Hyuk’s physicality, too, is impressive: in every scene he feels dangerous, a spring waiting to uncoil. His movements are swift and exact and feel completely calculated even when they appear to be entirely improvised.
As for the characters, each represents – in a way – a different aspect of The Swordsman. Tae-Yul’s best scenes are later when he fully commits to kicking ass, and the beautiful choreography that entails. Earlier scenes are more political and pointed; Seung-Ho faces a conflict of leadership, caught in the middle between two dynasties; Tae-Ok wants to live her life off the mountain and help her father recover his sight. To that effect she engages in a servitude which sees her as expendable, and must try to navigate the different dynamics regarding fealty she’s caught in; Gurutai – who chews the most scenery by far but is also easily the most deliciously evil and watchable character – arrives in town as part of the new transition and believes himself to be superior to the townsfolk, and so bullies and intimidates everyone in sight. It’s interesting to see the different aspects weave together as the finale approaches like a bullet train, threatening to destroy everything in its path.
The Swordsman is a beautiful mix of stunning choreography, impressive martial arts work, and attention to period detail that keeps you in the moment. Each main character is compelling and vivid in their own right – especially Gurutai – and ensures there is a surprising amount of depth that one might not necessarily expect from this genre. It does take a good bit of time to get going, covering as much ground as it can to ensure viewers understand the context, but when it finally does pick up, it’s worth the wait. It’s sure to appeal to martial arts fans and fans of Korean period pieces and is another example of excellent filmmaking from a Korean auteur in Choi Jae-Hoon.