The opening credits claim that the new 17th Century-set South Korean martial arts flick The Swordsman is based on historical events, but Michael Bay said the same thing about Pearl Harbor. Genre film fans are more likely to pick out other recent movies that provide a more obvious basis for the action in The Swordsman. The film is essentially a revenge thriller that echoes Taken in its set-up and John Wick in its biggest and bloodiest sequences, with a sprinkling of the classic Zatoichi samurai movie series for flavor.
First-time writer-director Choi Jae-Hoon is defter with action than with plotting, although admittedly some of the political machinations which surround the central characters might be easier to follow for viewers well-versed in Korean history. The backdrop to The Swordsman is the rise of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty and its subjugation of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. There are coups and double-crosses throughout the film, and I’d be lying if I said I understood who we were supposed to be rooting for during each turn of the tables.
In a way, all of that stuff is mere set-dressing for the revenge plot at the center. Swordsman Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk) is a former bodyguard for the deposed emperor, humbled and injured in the line of duty as a young man. He lives secluded in the mountains with a teenage daughter, Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo). Tae-yul is beginning to lose his sight and seems like a shell of the fighting boy we glimpse in an opening prologue. Tae-ok decides to take an offer to be the foster daughter of a nobleman, because it will help pay for special medicine to bring Tae-yul’s sight back. Tae-ok is kidnapped when Qing soldiers raid the home of the nobleman. Tae-yul tracks her down and fights off several dozen soldiers to get her back.
There’s more nuance to the story than that little description might suggest, but I would argue that a big part of The Swordsman‘s appeal is how archetypal and familiar it is. Joe Taslim, of The Raid: Redemption and the Cinemax series Warrior, plays the central Qing antagonist, and his character is portrayed essentially like a scumbag kingpin in a ’90s Steven Seagal movie. The character’s white girlfriend, styled with anachronistic hair and make-up, is introduced fondling a giant snake, and it’s the perfect trashy touch.
Similarly, one of Tae-yul’s lines after striking a fatal blow — “you are the one who insisted on fighting, don’t resent me for dying” — is the kind of kiss-off gold Schwarzenegger wishes his joke writers would have come up with.
Jung Man-sik gives a striking performance as a career soldier, Seung-ho, who seems early in the film like he could become the central character. In the opening prologue, he is shown fighting with Tae-yul, and it is hard to tell initially which of the two swordsmen is on the side of right. Seung-ho is given a worthy story arc, in which he must wrestle with past decisions and where he will ultimately place his loyalty.
The Blu-ray release of The Swordsman is bare bones, only offering a few trailers and two language choices (Korean and English in either lossless 5.1 surround or lossy stereo mixes).
Martial arts fans will have a good time with this, and I personally wouldn’t be disappointed if this marked the start of a new series for Tae-yul and Tae-ok.
More Pop Culture Beast – Movies:
*MLK/FBI explores the government’s grudge against the iconic leader
*Criterion Collection box set review: Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema
*New doc Belushi seeks to find the man behind the comedy
*Dick Johnson Is Dead is a darkly funny and poignant look at grief
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.