It has been two years since Lee Byung- hun showed his acting talents off in a Korean production. He was recently seen in American films such as Terminator Genisys, RED 2 and G.I. Joe Retaliation, and has two English speaking movies in the pipeline: Misconduct, alongside Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, and Magnificent Seven, a remake of the 1954 Japanese movie Seven Samurai, in which he will be acting next to Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. As much as I enjoy seeing Lee Byung- hun in international productions, I was longing for a Korean one, luckily, I didn’t need to wait long for it.
Memories of the Sword is a 2015 martial-arts period drama, co-written and directed by Park Heung- sik (Children of Heaven, Sorry and Thank You). The film is set against the Goryeo Dynasty and revolves around three great swordsmen, Seoul- rang (Jeon Do-yeon), Deok- ki (Lee Byun- hun) and Poong- cheon (Bae Soo-bin) who fight against injustice and tyranny of an incompetent king. One day, during an uprising, Doek- ki betrays his companions, which leads to unexpected death of one of the swordsman. In the chaos of the unfortunate event, Seoul- rang manages to flee the city with an infant, who was spared during the bloodshed, and settles in suburbia. 18 years passed by, Seoul- rang, now blinded, lives her live while looking after two children and running a tea house, whilst Doek- ki becomes a powerful military ruler and goes under the name of Yook- beak. Both characters are the core of the narrative in the first part of the film, it changes in the second one though, when the Seoul- ran’s adopted daughter, Hong- yi (Kim Go- eun) learns that, as we first assume, Doeak- ki and Seoul- rang were responsible for her parents’ death, from this point onward the audience is taken on a voyage of carnage and revenge.
Memories of the Sword is rich in details from the period, with luxurious costumes, set designs and battle arrangements that are almost straight out of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and is a visually stunning production. The slow motion fight scenes, with overdone wireworks at times, irritated me at some points. Even though the movie doesn’t lack in emotions, the audience may still find that there isn’t enough.
One would wonder if there is anything positive about Park Heung- sik’s martial arts extravaganza? Yes there is, as the film features three great actors. Kim Go- eun plays the young heroine, whose remarkable talent as an actress has drawn the attention of film critics since her role in 2012’s Eungyo, in which she plays a high school student who develops a complex relationship with an elderly poet. Her bold portrayal of Hong- yi definitely adds a great note to the film’s narrative, I am certain that her kick-ass moves would have scared even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jeon Do- yeon’s depiction of strong- minded warrior, Seoul- rang was good, but not as good as I thought it would be. Her previous roles in Happy End (1999), No Blood No Tears (2002), The Housemaid (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007) were more memorable and impressive in comparison to this film. Lee Byung- hun makes a great villain whose emotional and complex performance is impressive. His ability to find himself in any kind of a role, ranging from a gangster, a warrior, and even a warm- hearted king, there hasn’t been a character that he couldn’t become.
Apart from acting, Memories of the Sword definitely deserves praise for its cinematography as Kim Byeong- seo’s (The Priests, Cold Eyes) stylish visual sense is striking. The film was also Park Heung- sik’s first attempt to direct a period drama, and it was a decent one. In spite of the film’s flaws, Memories of the Sward is entertaining and it is worth seeing on the big screen, if not for its intense sword fighting scenes, then for Lee Byun- hun’s exquisite performance.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Roxy Simons
All photos © http://www.tpscompany.kr