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American action movies would do well to take a page from Park Heung-sik‘s Korean martial arts extravaganza that features not one but two female badass characters. Depicting a complicated tale of violent retribution set in the Goryeo era some thousand years ago, Memories of the Sword is a visually stunning period epic that should keep genre fans satisfied until the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hits theaters.
Indeed, this period drama bears more than a few similarities to Ang Lee‘s epic (and the myriad films that influenced it and have followed it), from its strong female protagonists to its liberal use of wirework choreography that enables its performers to fly through the air. Its young heroine, the teenage Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun), is introduced in a stunning sequence in which she proves her fighting mettle to herself by leaping over an impossibly tall sunflower.
It turns out that Hong-yi is in training to avenge the murder of her parents, for which she blames Duk-Gi (Lee Byung-hun, a Korean star who’s appeared in such American films as Red 2 and Terminator Genisys), the ruling dynasty’s military leader. When she reveals her fighting prowess in a competition it enrages Sul-rang (Jeon Deo-yeon, Secret Sunshine), the blind woman who’s raised her, leading to a disturbing revelation with further plot complications.
The intricate plotting is more than a little difficult to follow, and the frequent flashbacks of the characters’ backstories slow down the pacing considerably. But the film looks gorgeous, and the frequent fight sequences, including a climactic solo siege on a castle by the daring Hong-yi, are superbly staged, even if the slow-motion is laid on far too thickly.
Lee makes for a compelling and emotionally complicated villain; the lead actresses are as impressive with their graceful athleticism as their multi-layered characterizations; and Lee Kyeong-yeong is memorable as the aged master swordsman who mentors Hong-yi and who, after casually snacking on a bug, advises it to “be a king in your next life.” Packing a surprising emotional punch along with its dazzling martial arts spectacle, Memories of the Sword is a memorable addition to an oft-tired genre.
Production: Lotte Entertainment, TPS Company
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Go-eun, Lee Jun-ho, Lee Kyeong-yeong
Director: Park Heung-sik
Screenwriters: Park Heung-sik, Choi Ah-reum
Director of photography: Kim Byung-seo
Production designer: Han Ah-rum
Editor: Oh Myoung-jun
Not rated, 121 min.
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