Consider the logline for Choi Jae-hoon’s feature film directorial debut The Swordsman (Geom-gaek) for a moment: a blinded swordsman comes out of hiding when his daughter is kidnapped by slave traders. With this type of description, one would presume a martial arts takedown in the vein of Furie (2019) with perhaps the violence of The Night Comes For Us (2018). What one might not expect is a history lesson as The Swordsman begins in Lunar Year 1623 and with the removal of King Gwanghae from his leadership position in Joseon, a part of the Korean dynastic kingdom lasting from approximately 1392 – 1897. Using the history as the basis for the story allows The Swordsman to include a disclaimer proclaiming the narrative as based on true historical fact, though the lengths of this statement is difficult to discern, and requires the story to do a lot of groundwork to set up the necessary pieces for the logline to come to fruition. In this regard, any desiring a sword-slashing martial arts frenzy are both out of and in luck as the time it takes to get to the action may be longer than preferred but well worth the wait.
March 12, Lunar Year 1623, and the 15th king of Joseon, Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung), has fled the palace with only a few swordsmen by his side. After a respite, the king’s enemies, led by Commander Min Seung-ho (Jeong Man-sik), come to arrest the king and are held off by Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), a resilient and skilled swordsman. Unable to protect his master, he goes into hiding, his eye sight fading due to an injury sustained in that fateful confrontation. Years later, Tae-yul’s daughter, Tae-ok (Kim Hyeon-soo), goes to the local trading post to purchase medicine for her father’s eyes and ends up being offered an opportunity to work off the cost of the medicinal herbs. What neither Tae-ok or the trading post manager realize is that, in making this deal, the fate of Joseon is placed hanging in the balance.
One of the most striking things about The Swordsman is Hyuk’s physical performance. Tae-yul is the expected quiet warrior, but it’s the minor, almost minute things which make Tae-yul earn the reputation he’s known for. There’s an ease, a fluidity to Hyuk’s fighting that immediately makes any fighting sequence seem dangerous, even though it’s all staged. That kind of visceral intensity can’t be edited into existence nor can the presumption that quiet and still is menacing. Martial arts films from a variety of cultures have their own take on the blind fighter and, while The Swordsman isn’t exactly that given Tae-yul’s partial and fluctuating blindness, Hyuk’s small head tilts, kinesthetic positioning, and general characterization create a perception destroying warrior. In one sequence, for instance, Tae-yul is beset by a group of assassins. We, the audience, know something is coming yet, between Hyuk’s physical response to his environment and Choi’s direction, a communication is made that Tae-yul knows it, too. His response to the sudden aggression is swift, targeted, and without mercy. One surprising bit about the fights, while they are bloody and likely to elicit a reflexive verbal reaction from the audience, what’s displayed before us is not as bloodthirsty as you might expect. Even with The Night Comes For Us’s Joe Taslim playing the narrative’s bad guy, Lord Kurutai, the blood is there, but the viscera is not. This doesn’t distract or reduce the violence thanks to cinematographer Sohn Won-ho’s (#Alive) ability to capture Hyuk’s furiously fluid movements.
As fantastic as the swordplay is, that’s not really what The Swordsman is about. In reality, it’s more about fealty. This plays on the small stage in the relationship between Tae-yul and Tae-ok (the two have differing views of their responsibility to each other), on the larger stage of lords to their people, and then on the global view from a historical perspective. The wider from Tae-yul the story becomes, the more weighted it becomes and, at times, sluggish. Part of this is because the pacing of the film requires close to the first 40 min to really get going. Before that, it’s a lot of flash forward and back in time as the audience gets glimpses of the fateful night when Tae-yul attempted to protect his lord. It’s not that the world building is dull, it’s that the areas in which it chooses to spend time are strange. There is great significance placed on the Tae-yul’s fight to defend the king, both in regard to his ocular injury and in relation to the person he fights, yet the reason for the overthrow is barely explored, the warrior Tae-yul faced is treated like a tertiary character (only surfacing when the narrative requires), and Kurutai’s role in all of this seems more about finding an enemy from outside of Korea for Tae-yul to compete rather than address internal struggles. The research conducted prior to this write-up does indicate that Gwanghae was removed from leadership in a revolt that may have been politically motivated, but the rest of this story seems unconnected from facts. This makes the “based on true historical events” a more loose interpretation, but also calls into question some of the narrative layers applied to create a complex web for Tae-yul to engage. Especially when Choi structures the film in such a manner where the flash backs give us information we already have or orders scenes where the weight would be more significant placed elsewhere, there is a feeling that much of The Swordsman is intended to provide a “wow” factor that may distract from the weaknesses. Luckily for Choi, the “wow” is there, even if it the journey to get there is unnecessarily winding. There are plenty of films which explore elements of nobility, loyalty, or family amid martial arts brutality. This one just becomes slower by the examination.
Similar to other recent Well Go Home releases, there’s nothing included that offers an inside look at the making of the film. Even Gundala (2019) had several “making of” featurettes which allowed us to look at how shooting was accomplished. While it does no one any favors to dwell on what could have been, between Hyuk’s obvious skill, Taslim’s reputation, and the various action sequences, getting some kind of behind the scenes look at the creation, staging, and execution of the fights would certainly add some depth to the home release. Especially if no deeper exploration of the history is provided.
All in all, The Swordsman will successfully scratch that martial arts itch, even if it takes some time to get going. Hyuk holds it all together well, balancing the tender with the pliant, so that even if the film’s various explorations of responsibility aren’t totally successful, the one involving Tae-yul feels complete. Amid all of that, there’s quite a few bloody feats of frenzied swordplay that will absolutely dazzle. Personally, I’d love to see something between Hyuk and upcoming star of Well Go USA’s Crazy Samurai Musashi Tak Sakaguchi, another seemingly unstoppable fighter, go toe-to-toe or, better yet, stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Maybe, given some time and patience, we will get such a show. Until then, we have The Swordsman.
There are no bonus features available on the home release for The Swordsman.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital February 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA The Swordsman website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.