“A good script and impressive combat still can’t hold the whole film together”
As far as martial arts action goes, The Swordsman does little to reinvent the wheel. It follows much of the same set-up as others of its ilk; during a time of political turmoil tensions come to the fore in one out-lying town where heroes, villains and all in between start to butt heads. Amongst the rabble a lone swordsman begins to emerge as a formidable but underestimated champion who will inevitably prove to be an unlikely national hero. Despite how snugly The Swordsman fits within this oft-explored genre, it is nonetheless a solidly entertaining piece of work with well-developed characters.
Included in GFF as part of their Country Focus: South Korea selection, the film’s setting and language is not one that often makes its way to the Western mainstream. In comparison to the fantastical combat of Chinese wuxia, or the honour and brutality of Japanese samurai films, The Swordsman feels more like a grim and gritty underdog. The swordsman himself, Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), is introduced to us as nothing more than a humble mountain dweller. With severely damaged eye sight, he’s reliant on his daughter for aid and his fighting days seem to be in the past. Similarly, the country as a whole is on the backfoot. Set in the 17th century, just after Korea has suffered a small rebellion, the country is in disarray. Early on the nobles choose to save what money they have left rather than spend it on their impoverished peoples. Weakened as they are, they become easy targets to emissaries from Qing (in China) who, through force and intimidation, will turn Korea into a colony for their Emperor.
For a film with a focus on action and combat it is refreshing to see its script give the right amount of time to developing reasons for fighting. Writer/director Choi Jae-Hoon does a good job of developing the various players and establishing stakes before the first sword is even drawn. By the time Tae-yul, dragged down the mountain by his bored daughter, arrives at the village all the pieces are set. The villains have proven themselves to be evil enough that they need to be dealt with, while the resident nobles are too cowardly to take responsibility themselves. All that’s left is a catalyst. Which arrives in the form of Tae-ok (Kim Hyeon-soo), the daughter, being kidnapped by the emissaries. Tae-yul launches into a rescue mission which, quite unintentionally, carries with it the fate of the nation.
When the action does come it is worth the wait. Even though there are hundreds of films in this genre, it’s always impressive to see actors performing their combat in camera. Seeing Hyuk actually dodge and deflect blows while leaping over buildings or sliding through the mud is unquestionably fun. While Choi’s camera work is full of long takes and sweeping tracking shots so that the stunt work has time to breathe and deliver real impact. Rather than the fast-paced editing and shaky cam that we’re very used to in the West.
While the story remains satisfying the combat does lose its tension towards the third act. Tae-yul’s impaired eyesight is used to make his unbeatable combat even more impressive rather than as a disadvantage. A significant amount of the script is given over to establishing a number of the female characters to be as skilled as Tae-yul and his combatants. Yet, they’re pointlessly relegated in the second half and never given a chance to show what they can actually do.
The Swordman’s character development and well-established plot are its greatest strengths. As impressive and satisfying as the combat is, it is only just enough to hold our attention to the end. Making The Swordsman a film of two decent halves, one well-written the other well-choreographed, but not necessarily a cohesive whole.
Director: Choi Jae-hoon
Producer: Lee Tae-hun, Park A-hyoung
Cast: Jang Hyuk, Kim Hyun-soo, Joe Taslim, Jeong Man-sik
Release Date: 2020