“Is this all there is to being a soldier?” a jaded young man asks of an apparently reluctant mentor as he, also reluctantly it seems, prepares to betray his king merely because the balance of power has shifted. Drawing heavily from wuxia and chanbara, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Swordsman (검객, Geomgaek) once again takes on the futility of violence as the two men who might each lay claim to the title attempt to escape the complicated world of Joseon politics but find themselves unable to escape the legacy of the blade while facing an internal debate as to how to protect that which is most precious to them.
Loosely “inspired by true events” as the opening title card insists, the action opens in 1623 with King Gwanghae (Jang Hyun-sung) fleeing the palace in the wake of insurrection. Like pretty much every other ruler, he’s been accused of murdering his siblings to usurp the throne and has lost the the support of the army, including his personal swordsman Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), after instructing his generals to surrender to the enemy. Valiantly protected by lone defender Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), Gwanghae makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people and agrees to go quietly pausing only to secretly entrust his infant daughter to the last man standing.
Flashforward 15 years or so and Tae-yul is now a mountain recluse raising his teenage daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) alone in hiding from nefarious forces. The problem is that his eyesight is now failing and a trip to the physician to acquire medicine proves fruitless when it turns out such rare substances are available only to those with connections. Tae-ok wants to take up an offer from a local lord to become his foster daughter in order to get her father the medicine, but he is understandably reluctant. Meanwhile, a new threat has arrived in town in the form of thuggish Qing slave traders apparently intent on further disrupting the already unbalanced Joseon political situation which is divided in support of the Ming.
The political context in itself is only subtly conveyed, though this is a rare period drama in which the focus is only tangentially on courtly intrigue in the suggestions that constant machinations by ambitious lords have undermined the notions of soldierly honour and loyalty that ordinarily support the feudal system. The conflicted Min, a man of the sword, retires from the court because he isn’t certain he acted correctly in his actions towards Gwanghae and fears he was merely manipulated as he later is by bloodthirsty slave trader Gurantai (Joe Taslim). Gurantai and his henchmen seem to be on the look out solely for a worthy opponent to satiate their boredom, threatening an entire kingdom in the process. Tae-yul, by contrast, has renounced the way of the sword altogether and attempted to isolate himself from worldly violence in order to better protect his daughter only to find himself dragged down from the mountain by her love for him in insisting he find the means to fix his eyes.
When Tae-ok is kidnapped by Gurantai who has figured out who she is (in one sense or another), Tae-yul enters full on Taken mode determined to save both the girl herself and reclaim this relic of an earlier, purer world to which she is perhaps the heir pausing only to free a few slaves on his way. Operating on a much lower budget than your average period drama, Choi shoots mainly in a shaky handheld maintaining an indieish aesthetic in keeping with the rough and ready quality of the narrative which seems to draw equally from Hollywood westerns, Hong Kong wuxia, and Japanese samurai movies in its relentless drive towards the final showdown. Making a few points about he changing nature of the times and the futility of violence, the minions of a venal lord are eventually cutdown by rows of Qing armed with rifles while they flounder helplessly with only their blades, swordsmanship itself now an obsolete art though apparently one still valuable to bored, insecure leaders such as Gurantai. Nevertheless, the expertly choreographed action scenes have a mounting intensity from Tae-yul’s early refusal to unsheathe his distinctive double-edged blade to the merciless killing of a female bystander at the film’s conclusion. Ending with an ironic return to the world, apparently now changed, The Swordsman kicks back against feudal hypocrisies while its blinded hero uses the only weapons available to him in order to protect what he considers to be worth protecting.
The Swordsman streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.
US trailer (English subtitles)