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Memories of the Sword - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Hyeob-nyeo, kal-eui gi-eok

South Korea 2015

Wuxia, Drama

Park Heung-sik

Lee Byung-hun
Jeon Do-yeon
Kim Go-eun
Lee Kyeong-yeong
Kim Tae-woo
Kim Yeong-min
Seong Yoo-bin

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Memories of the Sword

Memories of the Sword - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) is raised and taught swordplay by her adoptive mother Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) in order to one day kill the murderers of her parents. Once, Seol-rang and Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) have been a couple and were part of the Three Swords, a league of justice that fought on behalf of the people. But Deok-gi betrayed the league and killed their friend Poong-cheon. That man's daughter Hong-yi has now been kept hidden and protected by Seol-rang for many years. By now, Deok-gi has become a high-ranking general who assumed the name Yoo-baek. Yoo-baek is doing everything in his power to strengthen his influence and one day become ruler of the whole country. But the rash girl Hong-yi shows off her skills during a martial arts contest and Yoo-baek instantly recognizes her fighting style. Since Yoo-baek is still in love with Seol-rang he hopes to finally see his beloved again. However, his former girlfriend despises him with all her heart and also tells him so right to the face. Now, time has come for Hong-yi to kill her parent's murderers: Yoo-baek and Seol-rang. Seol-rang couldn't watch her beloved getting killed back in the day and thus became an accomplice to the murder of Hong-yi's parents. Still, Hong-yi isn't willing to kill her own "mother" and Yoo-baek happens to be the best fighter in the country...

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Review: Hardly anybody could have foreseen that "Memories of the Sword" would bomb at the box office. An impressive cast, gorgeous pictures and a story around love, betrayal and revenge. But the reason for the film's failure isn't the scandal surrounding Lee Byung-hun's affair and the blackmail following it, but simply the fact that "Memories of the Sword" isn't a good movie. Director Park Heung-sik takes too many pages out of the book of certain genre classics without paying attention - with all the breathtaking looking pictures involved - whether the story is conclusive and at all times going somewhere with a decent pacing or not. The result is merely smoke and mirrors. Seeming like a quality film the flick has a great amount of narrative shortcomings which ultimately make it fail regarding its efforts to stand as a Korean wuxia movie.

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The different ideas the director makes use of are all too obvious. First, there is the wild, impetuous girl, that causes lots of problems because of her naivity, from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (as well as some of the air dancing in the bambus forest) and there is the duplicated visual impact of a Zhang Yimou in shape of lush colors and contrasts as in "Hero". The title itself refers to the King Hu classic "A Touch of Zen". Moreover, there is one scene of carnage at the end that reminds us of Japanese chambara classics like "The Sword of Doom". There are also fights in the rain or snow, which with their numerous slow motion sequences and almost freeze-frames involved want to reproduce the image aesthetics of a Wong Kar-Wai as in his "The Grandmaster". Accordingly, it doesn't come as a suprise that "Memories of the Sword" doesn't manage to be something of its own.

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The story itself actually could have got what it needs to be touching. After all, the plot is deeply grounded in the tradition of classic wuxia stories and delivers a lot of emotions. The movie's strength are its actors/actresses who give their roles the kind of depth which the screenplay lacks. Jeon Do-yeon ("Way Back Home", "My Dear Enemy") doesn't always convince as a blind woman, but apart from that her acting is without flaws. Lee Byung-hun ("Masquerade", "I Saw the Devil") is the true star, though, since he manages to give his villain more color by always showing something human and vulnerable through his love to Seol-rang - despite his actions. Notwithstanding all the heavyweigths of the cast Kim Go-eun ("Coin Locker Girl", "A Muse") once again proves that she can hold her ground perfectly acting-wise.

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The generally good acting achievements are topped off by Junho ("Twenty") in a love story that lacks real elaboration and Lee Kyeong-yeong ("National Security") as the uber-master with a long white beard. Next to the wonderful cinematography, which manages to be particulary mesmerizing during the nature shots, it's also the sets' level of detail that impresses. The fights are characterized by a lot of wire-fu and oftentimes lack a martial arts fundament. Instead, there is a lot of air dancing and fast editing that alternates with slow motion shots which are supposed to make the viewer drop his/her jaw with all the great picture aesthetics involved. Granted, the pictures really are gorgeous, but they still look as if being copied and the director celebrates himself too much as well. Another example for this is the finale, which emotional resolution is at first quite moving until the scene is stretched and overstuffed with art imagery to the degree that you can't take it serious anymore.

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Yet, all of this could have been bearable, if the screenplay had been alright. Unfortunately, the script is filled with flashbacks, story developments that aren't comprehensible and chance happenings that will make you roll your eyes. Often, you get the impression as if the movie would draw nearer to its core just to drift away from it again. This is repeated several times, making the events on screen soon turn out to be repetitive. Sometimes, the scenes even seem to be put one after another without any motivation at all, so that the empty spaces of the screenplay are outright jumping at you. This sadly also weakens the emotional impact of the interpersonal drama. Although there are a few aspects that work in favor of "Memories of the Sword" I can't give a clear recommendation. There is style over substance here and this needs to be punished, especially when there were so many high expectations involved.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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