The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here
For a film that claims to be inspired by true events, 2020’s period South Korean actioner The Swordsman sure does seem to be just as inspired by the tropes of the classic western.
Which, come to think of it, were occasionally inspired by samurai of eastern cinema themselves.
Heroic journeys are just cyclical the world round, I suppose.
At any rate, there is an element of mythmaking in this story of an ailing former warrior (in this case, slowly going blind) who reluctantly picks up a weapon not out of a sense of justice, but out of a love that is inextricably from a sense of duty.
But because it is a Korean picture, the politics of the piece are never far from the forefront, and this in some ways archetypical tale of justice gains a certain depth and complexity from its utter refusal to flatten matters into a simple tale of good vs. evil.
When you get right down to it, this story is less an action movie than a political thriller that happens to have some extremely satisfying sword murders.
Frankly, to a non-historian, the details that form the background of The Swordsman can be difficult to parse, though for all the complexities of faction and agenda, it’s not too difficult to suss out which ones are the black hats… as a general rule, the slave traders are the ones it’s okay to root against.
The matter of slavery, as it happens, is fallout from the opening scene. In the kingdom of Joseon, Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk) defends his king against a violent uprising, engaging in a one-on-one duel with Min, the leader of the resistance. We aren’t immediately privy to how the duel ends, but it quickly becomes clear that the man was not able to prevent the coup, and that the injuries were more than just physical.
In the midst of his defeat, the man has retreated to the mountains with his daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo), where they live a reclusive, simple life. Tae-ok is sweet and doting, but also at an age where she’s rubbing up against a desire to see more and be more a part of the world. But the world the man left behind is one that revolution most decidedly did not improve, and when his daughter finds herself a pawn of scheming political interests, it’s a world he will be forced to burn to the ground.
If I’m skimping on the details a bit, it’s because the exposition comes so fast and is loaded with so many names and events that are mentioned in passing and never again, that I had to read the Wikipedia synopsis just to find out the names of the main characters. Luckily, the majority of that is, if not quite background noise, at least comprehensible enough in the viewing that even if the dynamics at play aren’t always clear to a non-schooled viewer, we get the gist.
Mainly because the film does an excellent job of building out its eminently hissable main villain.
That would be the great and powerful Joe Taslim as Gurutai, a relative of the emperor who oversees the sale of slaves from Joseon. Arrogant and patronizing in the way that only someone born into power can be, his barely repressed sadism and supercilious nature immediately builds anticipation for the moment someone finally wipes that ever present smirk off his face.
Gurutai is unquestionably the villain of the piece and a showdown is inevitable, but there’s still a third side to the triangle that will need to be dealt with: Min, the conflicted rival who may prove to be ally or enemy.
What with his Lord (and by extension the entire kingdom) at the mercy of outside conquerors, it’s safe to say his attempt at revolution didn’t go quite the way he’d hoped. Tae-yul may be the titular swordsman, but it could just as easily apply to Jun mak-sik, who gives a quietly impactful performance as a compromised and conflicted soldier whose sense of honor and duty have led him to a place
His story and Tae-yul’s story are essentially the same (not for nothing is it outright stated that the king Tae-yul was so intent on protecting had sins to answer for as well), but the choices they made and continue to make in the aftermath put them on an inevitable reunion course to finish what they started all those years ago.
The Swordsman is writer-director Choi Jae-hoon’s debut feature (his latest, The Killer, is also playing this years festival), and he comes out of the gate swinging; the movie just moves, setting a relentless pace that, even in its occasional jumps into non-linear storytelling, remain crisp and easy to follow. And when the actual swordfighting action breaks out, it’s visceral and deeply satisfying (while being surprisingly gore-free; don’t go in expecting arterial spray like a firehouse).
In many ways, The Swordsman is a movie that tells a familiar story in a riveting and surprisingly nuanced way, while never forgetting for a moment that none of that would matter if the action we all came for wasn’t there to support it. It succeeds with style and flair.
Turns out that occasionally, truth kicks more ass than fiction.