The Swordsman (검객, Choi Jae-hoon, 2020)

“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)

No Mercy (언니, Lim Kyoung-tack, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

No Mercy poster 2Sad as it is, there will always be those who prey on the vulnerable. Even sadder is the way the world seems to reward them. There can be No Mercy (언니, Eonni) for the wicked, however, in Lim Kyoung-tack’s old school B-movie. Though tastefully appointed, Lim’s action drama harks back to the exploitation movies of old as its lady in red cuts through a host of sleazy misogynists, hoping to rescue her little sister from a life of lifetime of cruelty and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous men.

When we first meet her, In-ae (Lee Si-young) is being released from prison with no one waiting. She is, however, ecstatic to be reunited with her little sister Eun-hye (Park Se-wan) who has mild learning difficulties. In-ae misinterprets Eun-hye’s reluctance to go to school as the normal teenage rebellion, little realising that her sister is being mercilessly bullied by delinquents who have already passed her on to their sleazy friends. Forced to participate in a scam to lure salarymen to hotels then rob/blackmail them, Eun-hye just wants to go home but ends up being kidnapped by an amoral gangster they mistakenly target.

Worried when Eun-hye doesn’t return home or answer her phone, In-ae puts on the pretty red dress and shoes she bought her and goes out looking, quickly realising that something quite untoward has befallen her sister. In this situation she does what anyone would do – call the police, but the police won’t help. Teenage girls run away and usually they come back on their own, the policeman’s logic says, little caring that Eun-hye is a vulnerable teen and In-ae has evidence to suggest she has been kidnapped by thugs. If In-ae wants her sister back, she’ll have to go get her herself. Which is exactly what she does.

A full throttle action fest, there’s little point trying to pretend that No Mercy has serious intentions but it does, in true exploitation movie fashion, highlight a series of pressing social concerns, chief among them Eun-hye’s constant misuse at the hands of unscrupulous men who regard her disability as an excuse to do what they like with her on the grounds that she almost certainly cannot tell on them and is unable to resist. Molested by convenience store owners, photographers, mechanics, and finally an all powerful politician, Eun-hye silently bears all while longing to go home to her sister. In-ae, meanwhile, a talented martial artist, ended up in prison for going too far trying to protect her. Now that she’s out, she can’t find a job thanks to the stigma surrounding her conviction and worries about what’s been going on in the 18 months she’s been away.

Aside from being misused by sleazy men Eun-hye is also targeted by those like the delinquent girls in her class who think it’s OK to mock and humiliate her because she’s somehow “less” than they are. Aside from In-ae, no one seems to consider that Eun-hye is a real person with her own hopes and desires, they only see her as a strange and inconvenient girl. This kind of mentality is itself informed by the hierarchal society and sense of superiority it allows some to assume. Eun-hye finds herself passed to the sleazy politician by those hoping to curry favour. He in turn regards his right to rape her as proof of his status, that his position makes him untouchable and entitled to break the strongest of taboos without fear of repercussions.

Of course, In-ae isn’t having any of that. She wants her sister back, yes. But she also wants to teach these awful men a lesson so they stop treating women like identical faceless objects while perhaps showing other women they don’t need to let the guys get away with this. Giving them a taste of their own medicine, In-ae puts her martial arts skills to good use as she plows on running after Eun-hye while dragged back into the past despite herself. In-ae has no mercy for those who exploit the vulnerable, or for hypocrites, or for the self involved. All she wants to get her sister home and safe and she’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen. A charmingly retro B-movie throwback, No Mercy revels in its sense of anarchic violence as its enraged heroine takes her revenge against an unjust society while protecting what is most precious to her.


No Mercy was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Yoo Ha, 2015)

gangnam-bluesYoo ha takes us back to the 1970s for some Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Gangnam 1970) in a sorry tale of fatherless men caught up in dangerous times of ambition and avarice, very much at the bottom of the heap and about to be eclipsed by the “new world” currently under construction. Back then, Gangnam really was all just fields, owned by farmers soon to be cheated out of their ancestral lands by enterprising gangsters engaged in a complicated series of land grab manoeuvres, anticipating the eventual expansion of the bursting at the seams capital. Far from the shining city of today, Gangnam was a wasteland frontier town, the sort of place where a man can make a name for himself trading on his wits and his fists alone.

In 1970, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), sworn brothers from the same orphanage, are two street rats trying to survive in straightened times. When the shack they were squatting in is demolished and they come in to contact with a petty gangster, Kang (Jung Jin-young), the pair end up getting a one off job as thugs sent to smash up a political rally but get separated when the police arrive. Jong-dae finds himself taken in by Kang and his daughter Seon-hye (Kim Seol-hyun AKA Seolhyun) as a surrogate son and brother, repaying their affection by saving Kang’s life during an assassination attempt which later prompts his decision to retire from the criminal world altogether. Yong-ki joins the rival gang instead and seems to be making a success of himself but both find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt, dishonourable system hellbent on progress but only for the few.

Gangnam Blues has an overly complex, intricate narrative overlaying the generic brotherhood and betrayal theme that runs through the film. Dipping into a particularly dark period of history, Yoo is not afraid to step back into those difficult days marked by both rapid progress and increasing inequality furthered by complicated systems of interconnected corruption. The gangsters are at the service of the politicians but it’s always debatable who is running the show. Jong-dae’s participation in the land grab scheme is painted as amusing cleverness (at least at first) but little attention is paid to the farmers who are being “convinced” to sell their land off cheaply to gangsters who are each competing for the prime sections. Modern day Gangnam was built on blood and extortion, by men like Jong-dae and Yong-ki, even in the knowledge that they will be discarded as soon as their usefulness has been exhausted.

Jong-dae and Yong-ki are the bottom of the pile, orphaned and without family connections they have only each other to rely on yet their brotherly bond is repeatedly tested. The ‘70s Philippine folk song, Anak by Freddie Aguilar, which forms the film’s major musical motif has some very poignant lyrics about parents and their children but neither Jong-dae nor Yong-ki are able to find the kind of family they’re looking for. Both end up opting for the fraternal bond of a crime syndicate to replicate the kind of support usually offered by the family unit with Jong-dae finding a father figure in Kang who eventually takes him into his household as a son outside of the criminal world, and Yong-ki eventually marrying and soon to become a father himself. Forced into crime by their poverty, each becomes an outcast, permanently shut out from the thing they most want even whilst living a life of material comfort.

Yoo opts for a highly stylised approach filled with beautifully photographed, expertly choreographed scenes of violence including the traditional mass brawl in the rain, and a sequence of intercut killings each artfully sprayed with blood. Lee Min-ho acquits himself well enough in his first leading role as the noble hearted gangster Jong-dae with quality support from Kim Rae-won as the much less noble Yong-ki though the superfluity of secondary characters leads to an avoidable lack of depth. Relative newcomer Kim Seoul-hyun also does well with her underwritten role of the film’s most tragic character even if her domestic violence themed subplot seems like one too many. Another classic slice of gangster action from Korea, Gangnam Blues is an unflinching look back at a difficult era with uncanny echoes of the present day, and a suitably period tinged tale of melancholy ‘70s bleakness in which brotherhood and honour are merely words misused by men trying to justify their own ambitions.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Freddie Aguilar’s Anak as featured in the film: