Director: Park Heung-shik
Starring: Lee Byung-hyun, Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Go-eun, Lee Junho, Lee Geung-young, Kim Tae-woo
When the young and spirited swordswoman Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) reveals her exceptional talents at a public tournament, the similarities of her technique remind local magistrate Yu-baek (Lee Byung-hyun) of a figure from his past; his former lover and comrade at arms Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon). Tracking Hong-yi down, he hopes to discover the origin of her fighting prowess but the past will not stay dead and the goal of Hong-yi’s penultimate training may have repercussions throughout the entire empire.
Director Park channels the windswept melancholy of classic wuxia; with equal helpings of the ever important elements of revenge and romance. Park, who also has a shared writing credit, directs probably his most ambitious film yet; tackling a familiar but original story, handling extravagant fight scenes, and guiding an all-star cast. For the most part he succeeds, though there is a feeling of timidness in his direction. Nothing veers too far from convention, like maybe there is a little too much reverence in the history of the genre. As in his previous films, he handles the emotion and melodrama, particularly of the women, with a practiced hand cultivated with his experience in both film and television. The film is emotionally hefty, just in the way mainstream Korea seems to prefer, though this may turn off many viewers looking for an action-fest.
Lee Byung-hyun is the standout performer here with his commanding screen presence and intense demeanor demanding your attention moreso than almost any other performance of his thus far. Jeon, also re-teaming with Park after their wonderful work in his 2004 film My Mother, the Mermaid, is perhaps the most tormented character of the film and gives a performance that anchors the entire film. The gravitas she brings to the film garners both admiration and pity; a difficult feat for any actor. Relative newcomer Kim Go-eun continues her rise to stardom with her highest profile role yet and, for the most part, she holds her own against the seasoned Lee and Jeon. As the youngest character of the film, her role requires quite a bit more emotion just underneath the surface so she is much more prone to fits of impetuousness that at first seem a bit like like overacting, but fit in truly within the context of the film.
The action, while not the core of film, is quite good for the relatively few credits of action coordinator Jeong Seong-ho. It is a mix of big battles techniques, tightly choreographed one-on-one weapons duels, and the occasional super jumping and spinning typicla of fantasy swordplay. Production is stellar with great sets, populated locales, and some truly stunning cinematography. One of the biggest drawbacks is the less than convincing CGI that comes with poorly rendered animals as well as the artificially rendered sweeping camera shots that begin the film. Thankfully these bits are short and don’t take you completely out of the picture.
Beautifully shot and a nice modern reminder of the good old days of fantasy swordplay films, Memories of the Sword features mostly excellent wirework, competent fight sequences, and a serious almost Shakespearean tale full of misdirection and surprising revelations. While its polished look is at odds with my personal taste for the gritty and bizarre swordplay films of 90’s HK cinema, it does emulate those hugely influential films in what is perhaps one of Korea’s best and most true homages to the genre. Solidly entertaining and boasting one of the more intense performances from Lee Byung-hyun in years, Memories of the Sword is certainly one film that is not to miss.
Special Thanks to Well Go USA for providing a viewing copy!