With brutal action, The Swordsman becomes a film that capably mixes itself as an entertaining martial arts action film inside a compelling historical drama. A confident and well-executed film that does everything right.
After being partially blinded in a coup against the King, legendary swordsman Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk) goes into hiding, living a quiet, peaceful life with his daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-Soo). However, when political unrest leads to traffickers kidnapping his daughter, Tae-yul has no choice but to take up arms once more. In a race against time, losing his sight and with innocent lives hanging in the balance, he must also face a dangerous new nemesis Gurutai (Joe Taslim).
The Swordsman has a premise that would almost have you consider passing it by, but dear reader, there is a lot more behind that synopsis to real you in. Set during the 1600s, this is a look at the Qing dynasty’s invasion of the kingdom of Joseon. Though not very in-depth into the political goings, it is inspired by the events of 400 years prior. This allows us to feel for Joseon’s a little more, and a complaint could be that The Swordsman perhaps doesn’t get that across in its gorgeously animated title cards. To audiences aware of this era already, they will be able to get a grip of the story a lot quicker.
So to help you out, here is as good a gist as it can get. The Qing dynasty has begun to enact war on the Ming dynasty, and the conflict has found its way to the Joseon region, which to us ole Westerners is Korea. They have their kingdom but very much stick to the Ming way of life, calendars etc. As the Qing’s begin to tighten their grip on Joseon, this then obviously brings slavery and death to the actual citizens. So when villages and towns start to get overrun by slave traders (such as Gurutai, who is a part of the Qing dynasty), the last remnants of Joseon’s are firmly stuck between a rock and a hard place in what direction their country should go in. Fight or let the Qing’s takeover with as few deaths as possible.
So while yes, this is a film where a group of men kidnaps female characters, and the solemn damaged male has to go and save the day. There is a lot more going on than you would expect, and for the first half of the film, it almost comes across as a drama as there is next to no action here after the big opening salvo. This allows the film to do its best to set the scenes for us and become interested in these characters. There could have been an interesting story of a daughter travelling with her father as they try and fix his eyesight before it is gone forever (make that movie happen, please). However, here the first portion sets us up, and when Tae-ok is sent to be an adoptive daughter to the nearby Lord, the film picks seriously up in the action side of things.
Once the action starts, it rarely has a minute to stop and take a breather with one long action sequences that start as a two on one to Tae-yul’s disadvantage to this warrior having to go through dozens of men by its bloody end. It is quite a remarkable sequence that needs to be watched. The choreography, particularly in that scene, is as fluid as you will see. With a compelling final battle between Tae-ok and Gurutai, it takes its time and allows emotion to come to the fore more so than in the previous scenes, as those are just pure bananas. Happily (awkward to say), Tae-yul takes damage throughout his battles. It is almost refreshing to see his condition worsen as time goes on, as well it should in such a film (even when some of the movements from characters make little sense from a realism standpoint).
Director Jae-Hoon Choi and Director of photography Won-ho Son shoot The Swordsman perfectly, allowing the audience in as and when it is required. With the allowance of some longer takes, we get to breathe and enjoy the action instead of cut to pieces to make the action look more impactful. It isn’t needed here, and their work helps excel the picture. It should be noted that you are never left bored here, whether it be from the drama side of the action; Choi makes a point with his editor (sorry, I couldn’t find their name) to pace the film perfectly.
Happily for The Swordsman, there isn’t a bad performance in the house; everyone works well off one another. While the lesser characters are not fully fleshed out, there is enough to feel something about them, whether they be from Gurutai’s gang or the villagers affected by the violence and devastation. Jang Hyuk, of course, does a lot of the heavy lifting with his performance, and Joe Taslim is entertaining as the gruff whisperer Gurutai.
The sheer scope of the film can sometimes be its downfall as it wants to cram so much in such a short runtime that you feel some moments have been lost to us that would connect the dots a little better. The Swordsman is one of those action films that need to go towards that 2-hour mark due to historical information presented in the opening half. However, it is not the biggest complaint; however, it is a notable issue that doesn’t entirely detract from your viewing experience.
But, Kim Hyun-Soo almost steals the film as the young Tae-ok as she is the true driver of the early part of the film. She is such a delight in the first half that when the film turns more to the revenge and action aspect, she sadly becomes a stereotypical, scared girl. The wish that she gets some form of action sequence herself comes to mind that you feel she is a little wasted by just being a tool for the action.
One enjoyable aspect is how different everyone’s weapons appear to be. All of the main characters have swords that showcase their character very well. Some of the brutish slave traders have large wide swords meant to show their power and enact fear into their enemies. So when older characters keep their more traditional eastern swords, you see how they are traditionally trained warriors. With Tae-yul, he has a sheathed dual sword with a gap down the tip to allow for some clever uses of catching others weapons. His, like everyone else’s weapon, has a specific purpose to that character. An interesting note that as Tae-yul is “retired” from protecting his King, he hides his sword in his cane and, until necessary, keeps his sword sheathed until he has to.
With a strong mix of historical drama and action, The Swordsman is a very shot and compelling film with something you can enjoy. Filled with great performances, this is a confident thriller that will satisfy and have you invested throughout. Catch it.
Trinity CineAsia presents The Swordsman on DVD & Digital 17th May and Blu-ray from 24th May.
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