Between 1962 and 1979, Shintaro Katsu portrayed a character who would become an icon: Zatoichi, the wandering masseur-cum-blind warrior. The Japanese actor embodied the sightless samurai across 25 movies and 100 television episodes, even returning grizzled but no less deadly for a 1989 epilogue film. There have been reimaginings since, from Rutger Hauer in a (surprisingly great) Americanized homage to Takeshi Kitano and his artful splashes of CGI blood. The Swordsman isn’t a new Zatoichi film, but the feature debut from South Korean director Choi Jae-Hoon is the next best thing: a stark climb of an action film, whose drama builds to a second half packed with lithe swordplay.

One could sum up The Swordsman by invoking three movies: Zatoichi, Rurouni Kenshin and…Taken. Reminiscent of how the Netflix series Kingdom refreshed zombie horror through a period setting, Choi’s film sets the badass-dad tropes popularized by Neeson’s middle-aged franchise among Joseon-era political intrigue. Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk) is a father with a very particular set of skills, living in quiet isolation with his daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) and avoiding conflict while his eyesight fades. Wartime strife draws a band of slavers and mercenaries to the nearby village, led by Joe Taslim’s menacing Gurutai. Circumstances lead to Tae-ok being taken, and anyone familiar with the genre can probably guess what happens next.

For a basic dad-kills-bad-guys-to-rescue-daughter plot, The Swordsman devotes a substantial amount of its first half to political maneuvering and historical context. There’s the Ming-Qing dynasty conflict brewing on the fringes, the disillusioned general with a score to settle and the flashbacks to Tae-yul‘s most fateful battle, peppered with scenes establishing the warm relationship between father and daughter. Those first 45 minutes are leisurely and perhaps convoluted, but there’s a constant narrative push towards confrontation. The time spent on escalating drama allows Joe Taslim to flesh out his villain, complementing a pretty derivative persona with sinister charisma. That wonderfully cocksure temperament is welcome compared to Jang Hyuk‘s brooding stoicism.

While Hyuk’s performance as the (almost) blind swordsman may lack personality, his skills in battle do not. Once the eponymous warrior is on the trail of his captive daughter, the film becomes a blade-swinging sprint till the credits. Tae-yul conceals his forked blade in a walking-stick sheathe like Zatoichi, but the choreography is a far cry from the masseur’s lightning strokes. The closest comparison would be the more recent Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, and as in those films, The Swordsman’s swords are agile kinetic affairs. Those who’ve seen the Rurouni films might recognize entire maneuvers wholesale, albeit less flashy than the reverse-blade ronin. Guided by instinct and sound, Tae-yul unleashes aggressive acrobatic flurries against evil mercenaries, special-weapon-wielding goons and a small army of ninjas; the camera weaves alongside every evasive flip and slide.

That emphasis on momentum is infused throughout the film’s savage and graceful combat: Hyuk’s elusive forward-drive choreography; the tumbling scrambling physicality carrying combatants through multiple arenas; the nimble camera capturing the action with swooping clarity and long takes. A centerpiece sequence demonstrates why it’s never a good idea to bring guns to a blind swordsman fight, as Tae-yul carves through a group of riflemen in a single elegant shot. His climactic duel against Joe Taslim is another highlight: a grueling battle between two masters and their distinct styles, the clashing blades reinforced by a film’s-worth of personal and political stakes.

South Korea has been a dominant force in action cinema for decades, and films like The Swordsman further cement that position. Together with the sci-fi blockbuster Space Sweepers, Korean filmmakers have gotten 2021 action off to a very strong start.

The Swordsman is not a new Zatoichi film, but it’s the next best thing: a stark climb of an action film whose drama builds to a second half packed with lithe swordplay.
80 %
Lithe swordplay
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