Directed by Choi Jaehoon.

Starring Jang Hyuk, Joe Taslim, Jung Man-sik.

Action, South Korea, 100 minutes.


Reviewed as part of Glasgow Film Festival ’21. Showing from 28th February to 3rd March.


Set during the 17th century, THE SWORDSMAN tells the tale of Tae-yul, once a lethal swordsman, now living a life of seclusion in the hills with his young daughter after a coup against the royal family. In danger of going blind since his last duel to protect the king, Tae-yul’s daughter Tae-ok struggles to find medical aid for her father. This act of love and kindness however soon results in Tae-ok’s kidnapping by the evil slave trader Gurutai forcing Tae-yul to pick up his sword again, forcing him on a journey that will not only bring him into conflict with Gurutai and his band of sadistic henchmen but also the forces that forced Tae-yul into exile.


Director Choi-Jaehoon’s directorial debut may have a simple premise at the heart of the matter but there is a lot of story, character and historical background surrounding it to set it up. Western audiences prepared for a slice and dice film may find themselves surprised and their patience tested by the amount of set up that is laid out in the first half of the film. Added to this is a sometimes-tricky structure of flashbacks employed throughout to explain the more immediate circumstances of the story and characters. Jaehoon however manages to keep things on track with a storyline that lays out a time-tested story of good vs. evil with nicely choreographed, exciting swordplay throughout its second half to satisfyingly pay off its viewers.


To go along with its in-depth historical storytelling THE SWORDSMAN makes the choice to use a number of tried and tested Far East action movie tropes; the quiet yet lethal hero and the band of beyond evil villains led by a near cartoonish boss figure. Said figure, Gurutai, is played by Joe Taslim, an actor who should already be familiar to Western audiences from his turns in THE RAID films, THE NIGHT COMES FOR US and the underrated TV series WARRIOR. Here he portrays a supremely hissable villain, fitting in well here and confidently delivering his dialogue in Korean. That he does not get to fully display his physical skills until the films climax does not prove to be a drawback, predominantly showing his skills as an actor which prove him to be one of the most exciting figures working in action cinema today.


Facing off against him as Tae-yul, Jang Hyuk makes for a quiet yet compelling hero, reminiscent in places of Zatoichi, the blind yet lethal figure who dominated Japanese cinema with his long running franchise. There is always something immensely satisfying in seeing an underestimated hero face off against near impossible odds and THE SWORDSMAN manages to deliver on this front in a highly satisfying fashion. For those who may be new to the delights and pleasures of South Korean cinema, lured in by the likes of PARASITE and the TRAIN TO BUSAN films, there is much here that will draw them further into that countries catalogue of action cinema. Those more familiar will also find much here to admire and enjoy with its intriguing mix of slick 21st century action movie storytelling and in-depth historical accuracy.


Iain MacLeod.


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