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)

Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no subtitles)