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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blades of Blood (구르믈 버서난 달처럼, Gooreumeul beoeonan dalcheoreom) 2010

Most national film industries have their own variant of the period film and depending on the length and volatility of their history, they may have a few different epochs rendered in these offerings. Korea revels in genre cinema so it is no surprise that period films are numerous in the marketplace. Like other genres it is frequently cross-blended with other styles of filmmaking, and frequently it is twisted into something you may not expect: The King and the Clown, a gay period romp, became the nation’s top grossing film when it was released in 2005; Woochi mingled period, action, and science fiction into a high concept comedy and went on to be the second best performing film at the local box office last year; and Detective K, the first installment of an episodic procedural comedy was the most successful film in the first quarter of this year. These clever and original examples are joined by many more straightforward but exceptionally well-made period dramas such as Chunhyang (2000), Untold Scandal (2003), and The Servant (2010) all of which scored big with Korean audiences.

Every year over 100 films are made in Korea but only a dozen or so are marketed overseas. Blades of Blood is one of these and my guess is the film’s producers were hoping that foreign audiences would find something to connect with in this expensive and frequently gloomy enterprise because it certainly didn’t at home. The film only managed 200,000 admissions, a far cry from break-even point. The film features major, bankable stars, is technically competent, and can be quite good at times, so why did it flounder so badly?

The film is more than passable, if somewhat unremarkable, and I’m sure the filmmakers were a little surprised by its poor showing. Out of the two marquee names, Hwang Jeong-min is very good as the blind swordsman Hwang (more than a little reminiscent of Zatoichi) but Cha Seoung-won is problematic as the ambivalent villain Mong-hak. This perception could be entirely my own since I associate him with Kim Sang-jin’s blithely irreverent comedies. Cha portrays characters who are always over-the-top, goofy, and unsure of themselves: a disrespectful youth in Attack the Gas Station (1999); the fighting teacher in Kick the Moon (2001); the wannabe homeowner in Ghost Story (2004); or even as the jailed father in A Day With My Son (2007). To see him in such a startlingly different role is jarring and I couldn’t really get over it. Hwang on the other hand is familiar with oddball characters, A Man Who Was Superman (2007) being a great example, and he excels and seems to revel in this role.

Technically the film is very proficient, the cinematography is solid, the production design and costumes detailed, and the sound is very effective, if a little overbearing at times (like when the soundtrack is inundated with dozens of swooshing swords). One thing I couldn’t possibly understand was the prosthetic vampire teeth they attached to Cha, I suppose they were symbolic of his descent into mayhem, his craving for bloodletting and power, but frankly they looked ridiculous. The final shot of the film is also immensely perplexing, I’m sure that it means something but I really couldn’t be bothered to figure out what that is.

I think the film’s major flaw, at least what pervaded most of its running time, was the uneven plotting and the plodding exposition that went along with it. From the very beginning I had a little trouble following what was going on. I knew there was a rebellion that were forced to compromise and Mong-hwa wasn’t going along with it, he set out hellbent on revenge (possibly, I’m not sure) and killed Gyeon-ja's family. Then Gyeon-ja and Hwang (a former member of the rebellious alliance) went after Mong-hak. There’s also something about the Japanese invading, the rival faction in the King’s court, and a girl but she is so poorly written I can’t quite figure the role she played in it all.

I’ve racked up quite a few negative points, but I must say that I enjoyed a lot of this film. When I could follow it, it was at times engaging and the fight scenes were very good. The comical scenes involving Hwang mentoring Gyeon-ja were played for cheap chuckles but they work well, because they are well choreographed and because of Hwang. A lot of the narrative is an excuse for swordplay, characters get killed with hardly any provocation, but I suppose that’s par for the course and I think it benefits the film. The ending is quite melodramatic and somewhat apart from the rest of the film, but it’s done very well and I wonder had rest of the film had been done this way, could it have struck a deeper chord with Korean audiences? I definitely enjoyed myself with Blades of Blood despite its numerous flaws but I daresay that for many viewers it may be a step too far in the wrong direction.


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  1. Cha Seungwon has played serious/villainous roles before with success. He played the main antagonist in one of his first major roles in Libare Me (2000). But yes, he does play goofy roles very well.

    My biggest gripe with this film were the disappointing fight scenes. Especially the one between Cha and Hwang. Too much slow motion and overall sloppy choreography.

    *sigh* fighting/martial art scenes in Korean films always seem to be lacking that extra wow/cool factor that are prevalent in Hong Kong or Japanese movies.

  2. You're right, he has played a number of antagonists. I was only familiar with is comic ones at the time of this writing.