Brisbane has been less impacted by the current pandemic than some other state capitals in Australia, so with COVID concerns ever-present, the Sunshine State leg of KOFFIA was able to go ahead. Thus, with a bellyful of food from one of the many Korean restaurants that have sprung up in the city over the past decade or so, I found myself in a well-attended (given the circumstances) cinema on a Saturday evening to watch historical action/drama The Swordsman.
After the opening titles splash across a painterly background and a title card informs the audience the film is based on historical events, we find ourselves quickly caught up in the action. A fleeing monarch, an armed pursuit and one loyal royal guard with an unusual sword standing his ground. A one-on-one sword fight sets the standard for the action to come and then a time jump finds our swordsman protagonist Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), on a father/daughter hunting excursion in the forest with teenage Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo).
Tae-yul wants to raise his daughter in peace away from the precarious political situation unfolding in Joseon, which is caught in the fallout between the warring Qing and Ming empires of China. (War of the Arrows is set in the same time period, making it a slice of history well-suited to thrilling period piece action.) However, the sunny disposition of Tae-ok and her desire to care for her dad in return proves an impediment to his isolationism. A trip to a Joseon era shopping mall in a nearby town is heart-warming, humorous and an opportunity to soak in the period production design, but any seasoned viewer will recognise the dual purpose of these scenes. Stakes are definitely being set.
The first half of the film builds the character motivations and relationships well. Tae-yul carries a handicap which, although not quite as limiting as that of another storied film swordsman, still makes his quiet but capable character a heroic archetype. Representing the Qing threat are a bunch of heavies carrying out the Qing demand for tribute by taking people to be used as slaves and worse. Their leader is the greedy and menacing Gurutai (Joe Taslim). The way things will break between these two is basically a foregone conclusion, but several supporting characters whose loyalties and therefore potential choices are uncertain bring welcome unpredictability to the situation. Local noble Lord Lee (Choi Jin-ho), trading post proprietor Hwa Sun (Lee Na-kyung), and other half of the film’s opening duel Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik) all get to spar verbally with either Tae-yul or Gurutai or both, before the sparring gets really physical. Tae-ok is also her own character, far more than a kid for Tae-yul to worry over, and her actions driven by her concern for her father drive the story forward.
With all the doublespeak, veiled threats and posturing laying the groundwork as a springboard for the action, it’s a pleasure to see the fighting measure up to the promise. The depiction of the violence is initially restrained, becoming more bloody and bitter as the film goes on. This gives the more action-oriented second half a similar sense of mounting pressure as the preceding setup. Whatever the level of visible blood-letting though, the choreography has clearly been well planned, with the camera movement timed to match the moves for additional flair. When Tae-yul really gets into the swing of things, it’s clear the “based on historical events” reference is to the overall setting and not so much to individual actions. “It’s not possible” a survivor of a one vs fifty encounter quietly exclaims. Tae-yul is essentially a superhero now and there’s a bit where he, well, more than one-ups Donnie Yen’s character Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One by taking on a bunch of adversaries with ranged weapons in a square.
My lack of Korean language comprehension means at time of posting I haven’t been able to find someone to credit the action to, but it felt of a piece with Kenji Tanigaki’s stylish and energetic work on the Rurouni Kenshin live action trilogy and its recently released sequel and prequel. (This impression was aided by Jang Hyuk looking a lot like Masaharu Fukuyama’s character in Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends.) Lashings of CG blood still stand out as strange as the first time I saw them in Takeshi Kitano’s take on Zatoichi, but when it comes to budgetary allocation for the action I’ll take clarity of choreography over more squeamish-looking practical blood every time. It’s sharp stuff.
Two other elements of the film, the music and handheld camera use, feel distinctly modern and while I have opposite opinions on these it’s pretty subjective, so it may strike others differently.
The score employs a lot of electronic elements, laying hums and drones underneath tense scenes in the film’s first half. It’s not something used in a period setting very much and it could have been jarring enough to cause distraction. What lifts it to the level of being a good match overall is the way it is used to aid scene transitions, often fading away to lead into a change of location. When threat escalates to action, the soundscape rises to match, bringing in some thumping bass parts without breaking into full on breakbeat.
The handheld camera wobble in effect during many early scenes, even for dialogue exchanges, also appears to be an attempt to add to the unease. It’s far less wild than the Jason Bourne sequels, but unsteadiness of this sort, however slight, rarely sits right with this viewer and this case was no exception, proving more distracting than involving. Joe Taslim’s restrained smirks and Jung Man-sik’s eyes like lids clamped on vials of gall in the face of such impudence speak volumes on their own. I would argue a still camera could impart the sense of looming apprehension just as well, without the documentary-like artifice. It’s a let down when camera shakiness is thankfully absent during the frenetic, yet crisp, action.
Other mild disappointments are more due to not quite paying off all the plot threads than anything bad. The supporting cast bring a lot of life to the film, but a few of them fade into the background when it’s time to wrap things up, without getting any real conclusion to their stories. Importantly though, the core story is satisfying. The significance of that opening duel is referenced and expanded on several occasions in the following hour and a half, revealing greater emotional resonance each time. Ultimately Tae-yul and Tae-ok are the centre of the story, so while many blades and their wielders fill the lens, the movie’s title is singular for a reason.