Finally, a Korean period drama that is all action, and more importantly, devoid of mindless zombies. If you’re looking for a gritty action film filled with spectacular sword-wielding stunt work, Joseon era drama and good ol’ warriors’ code, The Swordsman will definitely deliver enough to whet the appetite of any action fan.
Directed and written by Choi Jae-Hoon, the film is designed with meticulous care to costume and makeup while incorporating a whole trove of weaponry for satisfying fight sequences, showcasing a winning formula of mixing a period drama with martial arts. If the “Die Hard on a…” trope defined action cinema in the 90s, audiences are now in the realm of hyper-violent action films as defined by the likes of The Raid and John Wick franchises.
While the nature of The Swordsman leans it more towards a martial arts film with action taking precedence over an admittedly predictable plot, we can’t deny that the story moves along at a well-timed pace packed with amazing action sequences. It wastes no time on unnecessary romances or over-glorified gratuitous fight scenes, and we are thrown right into the heart of an intense chase scene right off the bat.
The prologue sees the protagonist, Tae-Yul (Jang Hyuk) desperately protecting the emperor against a coup led by Tae-Yul’s mentor Seung-Ho (Jeong Man-Sik). After the doomed battle and fall of Gwanghaegun of Joseon, Tae-Yul retires his sword and leaves for a peaceful life in the mountains. We find out that he does so for his daughter, Tae-Ok (Kim Hyun-Soo).
The movie takes place during the tumultuous transition times of the Ming-Qing dynasty, so peace for the retired swordsman is unfortunately broken. Like how most Hero’s journeys are written, Tae-Yul receives a call to adventure when he first encounters the thugs from Qing and led by Gurutai (Joe Taslim) in the market. However, like any hero’s journey goes, he refuses the call in favour of maintaining his hermit days to protect Tae-Ok.
However, we see that Tae-Yul now suffers from deteriorating eyesight and this spurs Tae-Ok to venture down the mountain alone. Tae-Yul’s world is soon shattered when his daughter is taken from him and he is forced to cross the threshold and return to the world of the swordsmen.
Despite its gentle start, featuring sunny days in the mountains for the father-daughter duo, violence and swordplay soon permeate the plot. The swelling score that rolls through the film propels the momentum of the action as Tae-Yul slashes down enemy after enemy.
The wall-to-wall action hits its climax when Tae-Yul makes his way to Lee Mok-Yo’s (a minor unscrupulous noble played by Choi Jin-Ho) residence to face endless waves of Gurutai’s men. The scene is made all the more climatic by Tae-Yul’s quiet entry as compared to the carnage onscreen seconds before when the men, armed with guns, shot down Lee’s entire platoon of guards.
Cue wild barrage of gunfire and some Matrix-like slow-mo bullet-dodging action, Tae-Yul’s onslaught against the men is relentless. With only a sword, he is able to slice through the first wave of gunmen and power through a group of ninja-like masked assassins. Coupled with smooth continuous shots of the action, the entire scene was bloody with a capital B. But, the blood at some points did tend to look obviously digital and could have worked better with more realistic spurts.
Amidst all the action in The Swordsman, we see a build-up to the final boss fight with Gurutai via the menacing hold he has over both the Joseon officials and the three barbaric thugs. Being the cream of the crop in terms of sword skills, the final fight is an escalating intensive sword slashing sequence. The only issue we had with the scene was that it felt as though the final fight ended too soon and we’d love to have seen more of the two characters pitted directly against each other.
So yes, this leads to the few gripes we have with the film. Seung-ho’s first battle against Tae-Yul implies that he is a much better swordsman than our protagonist, but in the film, he ends up doing very little swordwork. Maybe, it could have been related to the aged warrior’s philosophical outlook on swordsmanship changing due to the regressive state the nation was in after he led the coup. Most of his action is only ever mentioned in passing or through small fights that seem ornamental compared to his opening battle in the prologue.
Similarly for Gurutai, who is played by martial-arts expert Joe Taslim (of The Raid fame). As a fierce swordsman with his own albeit twisted code of honour, he struts around with an air of superiority as the Joseon warriors are unable to touch him in fear of retaliation from the powerful Qing kingdom. Gurutai is first introduced in a scene with a suaveness in contrast with the flittering Joseon nobles and doesn’t hesitate to expose his menacing aura. One would expect more action from the character throughout the movie, considering that the actor playing him is known for his spectacular long take fight sequences, though we can understand that they may have curbed this due to the want for a more intense foreshadowing and build-up of mystery surrounding the “final boss” of this action film.
Yet, aside from these small action woes, the film hits the nail on the head characterisation wise.
Jang Hyuk was able to express so much with so little said as Tae-Yul is a man of few words but with a strong code of honour. He spends the first half taking down enemies with a cane, thwarting villains without unsheathing his sword and just glaring them down, attesting to his skills as a warrior and morals (and ramping up his coolness points). He would rather avoid fights when possible, even lowering himself on his knees at one point for his daughter’s safety.
However, despite being a silent warrior with a puppy-dog face portrayed by Jang Hyuk, the swordsman doesn’t hesitate to switch back to killing with actual weapons when he realises that submission is no longer a way to maintain his peace.
K-pop fans will also be pleasantly surprised to see BTOB’s Minhyuk transform into a rugged swordsman as he portrays the younger version of Tae-Yul. The Swordsman marks his big-screen debut, and here, the singer shows off his acting chops with strong facial expressions, swift movements and intense gazes.
Tae-Yul shares a close bond with his bubbly daughter who adds a breath of fresh air to his quiet life. We appreciate how the film doesn’t go with the overused trope of a warrior retiring his blade due to a painful past and instead see that Tae-Yul did so in order to protect Tae-Ok with a peaceful sheltered life away from the brewing chaos. When Tae-Yul drops the line, “My daughter my nation,” it can be taken figuratively. But, there is another explanation behind that line which viewers will have to watch to find out.
Kim Hyun-Soo plays the daughter who is bold, yes; and acts with a will well ahead of her time but not in a brash manner. She cares deeply for her father and respects him, only showing defiance out of concern for his ailing eyesight which he refuses to tend to. How the film was trying to portray Tae-Yul’s onset of blindness could discombobulate audiences though, as the weird ringing and wooziness made it seem that he had some bad head trauma and was not simply going blind. The film itself doesn’t elaborate on the illness either so everything is based on speculation.
Through Tae-Ok, the film takes a break from the action at times and opens up towards the period drama aspect with her adventure down the mountain and frolicking through the colourful market streets. It’s too bad that she didn’t get more screen time to show off her character and demonstrate more of her spunk. But perhaps, it wouldn’t have fit into the narrative or may have taken up too much time.
Unlike Tae-Yul, Gurutai is a man of many words and has a lot to say about the Joseon people and their nobles. It is pretty impressive with how well Taslim, an actor from Indonesia, is able to pronounce and delivers each line without faltering and even manages to infuse the right amount of menace in each syllable. He even executes the older historical accent that some Korean period dramas will use, with a natural lilt which is a huge achievement even for native Korean speakers. What’s more, this is also his first time doing action with a sword, yet he executed the moves flawlessly, showing his true martial art prowess.
Leading a trio of ruthless thugs and a band of bandits they terrorise the Joseon villages with slave debts which the Joseon guards have no choice but to close both eyes too. And for all his code of honour dictates, it becomes his weakness as he is quickly blindsided by it when Tae-Yul makes an unexpected move in the final confrontation.
The trio of thugs burst into the scene in a flurry of hoofbeats and over-the-top hairdos. Their brutality is established with their merciless beatings of a defenceless villager and savage choice of weaponry. Yet, despite all their bullying, they are easily overwhelmed by our protagonist. Though the fact that they could sense that Tae-Yul was skilled with a sword, without being fooled by his meek demeanour as others were, could attest to their experience in fighting and swordplay.
And as with how most period dramas are fashioned to match the ways of that time period, the women are treated more as mere decorative figures or transactional goods. Thankfully, the film does not have drawn out gratuitous scenes with regards to their low treatment. Moreover, we do have some girls inside who attempt to subvert the norms such as the trading port lady and Tae-Ok herself.
Furthermore, aside from the epic choreographed fight scenes, the film pays diligent attention to detail too. The costume designs for the main characters are simple but effective in portraying their personalities and statuses. Even the makeup is top-notch and consistent throughout, paying special care to the cuts and old injuries that the characters bear.
The sound design is nothing to ignore too and if anything has to be lauded for its ability to feed to the action. Every draw and swing of the sword is accompanied by an answering ring and the thuds and thumps help every blow feel more weighted and real. Even the simple sounds such as the clicks and clacks of the nobles’ accessories and the crunching of gravel beneath the guard’s boots helped to develop the look of the character beyond what can be seen visually (ASMR anyone?). These small sound effects help build the intensity of blood-pumping scenes due to its contrast with the escalation of noises brought about by the chaos.
The Swordsman is a wonderful blend of meticulously choreographed swordplay and enough drama to make us invested in the characters despite its simple plot. The film’s ruminative tone is interspersed with well-paced action and gentle moments and even ends on a bittersweet heartwarming note. It truly is up to scratch with what a good action film should look like and is a huge accomplishment as a directorial debut for Choi.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
The Swordsman is an impressive Korean period action film filled with meticulously choreographed swordplay and complex characters which will satisfy any die-hard fans of this genre.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 9.5/10
Characterisation - 9/10
Geek Satisfaction - 9/10