There will be blood
“That child is my nation”.
It’ll take the full runtime of The Swordsman to put every last puzzle piece together as the film leaps back and forth through time to tell the story of going-blind swordsman Tae Yul (Jang Hyuk) and his paternal connection to Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo). In the film’s “present” timeline, a pre-teen Tae-ok is restless to join life in the city after having been raised in the isolated country by her father. But as Tae Yul’s eyesight nears total blindness and healing herbs can potentially be located in the city, the two attempt a low key trek to rescue what little eyesight Tae Yul has left. This visit will bring Tae Yul’s past crashing into his present. In the film’s flashback timeline, we see a young Tae Yul attempting to defend his master and king from a coup. He stands alone against a horde and while he proves his bravery, the king never the less surrenders, and Tae Yul’s eyes are damaged in his final stand to protect his lord.
Absolutely stunning from top to bottom, I couldn’t possibly have loved The Swordsman more. With a touching father/daughter relationship at its core, a clear mission to pay homage to Japanese blind swordsman series Zatoichi, gorgeous production design, top notch performances, and breathtaking action sequences, this film just hit the spot on every conceivable level.
Most importantly, let’s talk about the action. The movie just plain rips. There’s nothing quite so cinematic as a noble swordsman facing off against hordes of villains, and we’re treated to a number of set pieces that are filled with grace, speed, and carnage. Single take sequences are becoming more and more trendy these days, to varying degrees of success, but the clear action highlight of this film is Tae Yul’s showdown with a platoon of riflemen which is all done in a single take and had me hollering by the end. The fact that Tae Yul occasionally fights with his “blind man’s cane” and has a blade secreted away inside of it helps give The Swordsman a Zatoichi flavor that is a unique kind of action cinema satisfaction. Every showdown and duel has weight and gravitas to it as well, with the politics and personal grievances being well established in writer/director Jai-Hoon Choi’s script. (It should be mentioned that writing/directing this film are literally the only 2 credits to Jai-Hoon Choi’s name on IMDb. Who is this person? How do you debut with this remarkable of a film?!)
Part of the formula which served the Zatoichi films across 20+ entries is the dynamic of enemies underestimating our hero because of his blindness. Here Tae Yul isn’t entirely blind, but it is presumed he will be so eventually. This makes our hero an underdog, even though he’s clearly on the righteous path and his skills far exceed those of his enemies. It makes for endlessly entertaining viewing. Tae Yul is quite different from Zatoichi in a key regard though. Where Ichi routinely plays the fool and uses his sense of humor to further lull his enemies into a false sense of security around him, Tae Yul is deadly serious, almost mute. This is because, of course, he’s guarding his “daughter”, who is actually his king’s daughter, whom he’s raised as his own and who would likely be killed by the new ruling lords if her identity was revealed. And so Tae Yul’s only purpose in life is to raise Tae-ok in peace. Which is why he’ll stop at nothing to save her when she’s taken captive by a lord looking to save his own daughter’s skin by offering Tae-ok to a gang of slave traders who’ve arrived in town.
Playing the best damn mustache-twirling, swaggering villain I’ve seen in ages, action cinema stalwart Joe Taslim (The Raid, The Night Comes For Us) as Gurutai is a key component to making The Swordsman so entertaining. An action film is only as exciting as its villain, after all, and once again, the script does a great job of making our villains worthy foils for our fascinating protagonist. While the aforementioned rifle platoon scene wins for best action sequence in the film, the final showdown between Taslim and Jang Hyuk is entirely satisfying. Like many of the best action films, the tension and exhaustion and stakes just all ratchet up until that final showdown, and it’s the match up you’ve been waiting for through the whole film.
If I had any struggles at all with the film, it’d be the script’s “back and forth through time” structure and how that meshes with the intricacies of Korean political machinations. I’m not sure I was always entirely following the power dynamics or what was happening in Korea at the time the film takes place in. Sadly, this westerner isn’t intimate with Korean history, and the puzzle-pieced film didn’t hand-feed me those contextual details. Those occasional moments of confusion or lack of context didn’t diminish the final product much at all, however. If you’ve loved Korean action cinema in the past, or tend to be a big fan of swordplay cinema, The Swordsman is going to serve you a healthy dose of poised and principled ass-whooping.
And I’m Out.
The Swordsman hits Digital & Blu-ray 2/16/2021 from Well Go USA