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Original Title:
Gooreumeul beoeonan dalcheoreom

South Korea 2010

Costume, Drama

Lee Joon-ik

Hwang Jeong-min
Cha Seung-won
Baek Seong-hyeon
Han Ji-hye
Kim Chang-Wan
Lee Hae-Yeong

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Blades of Blood

Story: During Korea's Joseon dynasty great chaos plagues the country. The Japanese invade the country and the Eastern and Western Council are in disagreement about how to act accordingly. The country is paralyzed. But one man, Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won), leads the "Grand Alliance" which has made it its goal to dethrone the uncapable king and defend the country against the Japanese. The blind swordsman Hwang Jeong-hak (Hwang Jeong-min) was once himself part of that group and a close friend of Mong-hak. Now he thinks that Mong-hak has betrayed a mutual friend and only intends to widen his own influence of power. The young Gyeon-ja (Baek Seong-hyeon) whose father has been killed by Mong-hak runs into the blind man. The badly injured Gyeon-ja wants to take revenge and Jeong-hak is also convinced that Mong-hak needs to be stopped. However, it turns out to be quite difficult to pinpoint the whereabouts of the "Grand Alliance's" leader. The only clue is the gisaeng Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), who is said to be Mong-hak's lover. Because of a high bounty on his head Mong-hak goes into hiding and therefore the hunt for him takes some detours.

Review: When the director of "The King and the Clown" brings a new period drama to the big screen the expectations naturally are quite high. But even without the knowledge about director Lee Joon-ik's filmography his newest work proves to be a disappointment. Technically there is nothing to criticize and with a good cast as well this is all mainly the fault of an uninspired story that takes elements from different films and connects them into a rough-and-ready way. We have already seen all of it before, from the rebel who despite his initial good intentions loses his way to the blind swordsman who is obviously a homage to Zatoichi. Therefore, it doesn't even surprise that the little romantic side plot which always remains in the background eventually becomes the movie's actual strength.

There is one factor, though, that makes "Blades of Blood" extremely entertaining for most part: Hwang Jeong-min ("A Man who was Superman", "The Unjust"). His interpretation of Zatoichi is very likeable and funny. A cranky old codger who has to struggle with his blindness but when it comes to a duel he pulls out all the stops. He always finds something to laugh about and this even though we are quite aware that in his core he is a tragic figure. He doesn't take life too serious since he has already "seen" a lot and takes a liking in tormenting his new protégé Gyeon-ja with cane strokes. Out of respect for his age Gyeon-ja on the other hand can't really defend himself and so some nice chemistry starts to unfold between him and Jeong-hak. Without this relationship Gyeon-ja would have been a badly drawn supporting character that simply longs for taking revenge and wouldn't have worked out as the protagonist later on.

Hwang Jeong-min delivers his best performance to date, but the villain is also played effectively by Cha Seung-won ("Blood Rain", "Eye for an Eye"). His character is cruel and unrelenting when it comes to achieving his objectives. In the end whe don't really know if he maybe wasn't actually a good person at first who became so obsessed with his goal that he eventually became twisted. His scenes with the blind swordsman let us suspect more character depth than expected and especially during the showdown this impression is validated again. This picture of him is of course also consolidated by the gisaeng Baek-ji who knows that Lee Mong-hak has to die for the uprising that already caused the death of numerous people to finally come to an end but who nonetheless has completely fallen in love with that man and thus suffers in silence.

This small love story is in fact quite nice. Nonetheless, the scriptwriters didn't give much thought to how they can effectively make Baek-ji a part of the movie. Thus, she simply follows Gyeon-ja without any real apparent motivation and all of that just because she has to play a certain role at the end. All in all the story seems to be rather haplessly structured, yet manages to keep us interested in the developments because we want to know whether Mong-hak's betrayal of his friends maybe was actually worth the arduousness or not - in order to protect the country from downfall. At the same time we can also understand Gyeon-ja's wish for revenge very well and the reasons for Jeong-hak's inevitable confrontation with Mong-hak are understandable, too. With this there is a certain and welcome ambiguity concerning the black and white painting of the characters running through the whole film.

In its core a period drama the film also dives into the action genre with its sword fights every now and then and actually convinces in this field. The movie isn't especially bloody but the sword fights are choreographed very realistically and are executed well. Only at some points the camera is too close to the action and at the end there is some unnecessary use of slow motion. Apart from that the fights add to the movie's high pacing and actually can compete with those in Chinese or Japanese movies. The directing and the settings as well as the costumes are also top-notch. At the end, however, the loose ends aren't connected satisfyingly and you can't get rid of the feeling that you have seen all of it before. The missing originality of "Blades of Blood" thus stands as the biggest flaw of Lee's newest costume drama.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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