South Korean martial arts period fantasy Memories of the Sword thrills viewers by externalizing the inner thoughts of three swordsmen and -women obsessed with revenge: a cocky teenager, her blind mother, and her mother’s ex-lover. Writer-director Park Heung-sik (My Mother the Mermaid) adeptly relates his characters’ feelings and complex relationships through geographical leitmotifs.
Set in the Goryeo era (sometime between the tenth and fourteenth centuries), Park’s narrative hinges on feisty teenager Hong-yi’s (Kim Go-eun) quest to kill legendary fighters Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) and Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun), the two anti-imperial dissidents who murdered her father. So Hong-yi’s impenetrable temperament — presented as a tree-lined, wolf-infested forest — is shown to be the literal middle ground that connects villainous Duk-gi’s tempestuous emotions — rain-and-snow-besieged palatial courtyards — with tragic anti-heroine Sul-rang’s encouraging, nurturing personality (fields of wildflowers and sunflowers).
Memories of the Sword is most exciting when its swordsmen invade these respective character-defining spaces. During the underwhelming finale, Duk-gi reveals himself to be as shallow and megalomaniacal as he initially seems. But Park invests an intoxicating level of detail in an early scene where Duk-gi’s men try to subdue Sul-rang while Duk-gi struggles to calm himself by remembering how Sul-rang once prepared tea. From the past, Sul-rang describes — through voiceover narration — the varying textures of the tea-making ritual Duk-gi now performs alone while she fends off a legion of soldiers.
Memories of the Sword stands apart from other action films because Park wisely imagines violence as an elemental clash of dispositions.
Memories of the Sword
Written and directed by Park Heung-sik
Well Go USA
Opens August 28, AMC Loews Bay Terrace 6