Hong-i (played by Kim Go-eun) is a talented young martial artist living in the Goryeo era. Hong-i is so jazzed about being able to achieve an obviously impossible acrobatic feat over a sunflower that she celebrates by running off into town and impulsively entering a martial arts tournament. But before we get to know Hong-i too well, her mother Wol-so (played by Jeon Do-yeon) and archenemy Yoo-baek (played by Lee Byung-hun) take over the movie, with Hong-i only making fleeting appearances.
On the business end I can sympathize with this creative decision. After all, if you hire Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Byung-hun to be in your movie, it's a bit of a waste to just shove them off into supporting roles. But on the creative end, the disproportionate emphasis on Wol-so and Yoo-baek completely kills the momentum of Hong-i's character growth. Indeed, Wol-so and Yoo-baek effectively kill Hong-i's sense of agency too, as the young woman increasingly comes off as a puppet intended to settle old scores rather than a character in her own right.
Yool (played by Lee Junho) is similarly shafted. His role is among the more potentially interesting as Hong-i's similarly aged opposite sex rival with a position of some importance in Yoo-baek's sinister organization. Alas, he barely even gets a personality. Which is especially weird, because Yool definitely does a lot more than Yoo-baek in the present day. It's just, we really do spend that much time stuck in flashback mode with Wol-so and Yoo-baek.
What makes this screenwriting decision especially frustrating is that Hong-i has no way of knowing what actually happened between Wol-so and Yoo-baek back in the day. "Memories of the Sword" could have gotten a lot more dramatic tension by making the backstory deliberately ambiguous, which in turn would have opened Wol-so and Yoo-baek's actions up to multiple interpretations. Yoo-baek in particular suffers from this, because the man's so consistently reluctantly evil he never ends up feeling like much of a threat.
The real shame of all this is that "Memories of the Sword" looks absolutely gorgeous. Director Park Heung-sik combines vibrant colors with unimpeachably well-flowing action. Every minor taunt or feint takes on larger than life dimensions. The choreography is so exquisitely orchestrated that we really learn more about the characters from their martial arts moves than their role in the actual story. Hong-i the impulsive, Wol-so the calculating, and Yoo-baek the painstakingly defensive.
Of course none of these archetypes are all that deep, and "Memories of the Sword" suffers from its two hour runtime as much as anything else. The movie is just plain exhausting, and can't even spare a moment for comic relief. Though the base outline of the plot is just a fairy tale metaphor for growing up, there's also a lot of weighty material about death and politics and freedom tossed in there and I was just, geez, why does this story have to be so complicated? After a certain point excessive explanation just calls to attention a lack of confidence in the universal nature of the story's underlying themes.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD, Blu-ray, Online from Amazon and YESASIA
DVD TH (En Sub)
DVD 2-Disc (First Press Limited Edition) (En Sub)
Blu-ray US (En Sub)
DVD US (En Sub)
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Memories of the Sword""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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