The Swordsman

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Swordsman
"A satisfying action thriller." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Raising kids out in the sticks seems like a great idea when they're little. As long as they're sensible about natural hazards, they can run around and play freely without being at risk from other people. As they grow, however, they almost always become frustrated and want to be around more people. It seems this is is equally true if you're a middle class family with careers in teaching and multimedia work or a solitary swordsman hiding out on a mountaintop after being blinded trying to defend your lord against a coup. And one other rule applies regardless: when that kid starts to break away, there's going to be trouble.

Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk) has, over the years, become resigned to a quiet life, perhaps because he feels ashamed of his defeat. Teenager Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo), however, wants something better for herself, and she also wants to find a cure for her father's deteriorating sight. When an opportunity arises for her to become the ward of a wealthy family in exchange for working as a carer - a situation which would enable her to save up the money for the father's treatment - it seems to her like the perfect solution. What she doesn't know is that there's another reason why Tae-yul hid her away on that mountaintop, and that even without the truth being known, the place where she is choosing to spend time is dangerous. When she is kidnapped by the slave trader Gurutai (Indonesian martial arts star Joe Taslim, best known in the West for his work in The Raid), Tae-yul must throw off the shackles of the past and set out in pursuit.

Copy picture

As you may know, at Eye For Film we're not big fans of films in which poor helpless women are kidnapped or killed in order to spur male characters to action. There are more than enough of them in the world already. This, however, has a bit more going on, in as much as it's using its slender plot to explore the history of the messy transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties of China (which then included what is now Korea) and to look at broader themes around a sworn swordsman's duties. Furthermore, director Choi Jae-hoon takes the time to give Tae-ok a character of her own and she doesn't disappear from the story after she's captured, having her own role to play. Both Kim and Jang are capable actors and the relationship between daughter and father is tenderly drawn. Both characters still have quite a bit to discover about it.

Where the film is weaker is in the plotting. This will admittedly be more of a problem for viewers not familiar with the historical context, but that aside, too much of it comes across like a string of fights with not much of substance to connect them. Whilst the set pieces are nicely designed and there's some impressive technique on display, the film has been tidied up in post in a way that's a little too obvious, and in the process it has lost the rough edges that make this kind of thing believable. Choi doesn't quite seem to know what kind of film he's tying to make.

On the plus side, the film is nicely shot by Son Won-ho and the detailed work in costumes and sets goes a long way, helping to build up atmosphere. Choi demonstrates a good understanding of the complexities of visual impairment and structures both the dramatic scenes and the action scenes in a way that makes sense. Although China has an ancient tradition of training blind people as assassins (as seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jang has had nobody to help him work out how to compensate for his difficulties in this way. He is forced to improvise based on his previous combat training and his later experience as a hunter and small scale farmer. The way this understanding is built into the action is impressive, even as the film makes wry allusions to regional classics with similar themes.

With a slightly more decisive approach from Choi, especially at the scripting stage, The Swordsman might have aspired to classic status itself. As it is, it's still a satisfying action thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat towards the end.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2021
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The Swordsman packshot
A blind swordsman fights to protect his daughter and is forced to confront an old enemy.

Director: Choi Jae-hoon

Writer: Choi Jae-hoon

Starring: Hyuk Jang Jeong Man-sik, Angelina Danilova

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

Glasgow 2021

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