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South Korea 2011

Thriller, Drama

Park Hoon-jung

Park Hee-soon
Jin Ku
Ko Chang-Seok
Eom Jeong-hwa
Kim Kap-soo
Jeon Gook-hwan
Choi Il-hwa
Jang Hie-jin

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The Showdown

aka Swordbrothers

Story: The troups of the Joseon dynasty go into battle against the Chinese Ming in Manchuria. The only ones surviving this bloody battle are general Heon-myeong (Park Hee-soon) and his best friend Do-yeong (Jin Ku). They manage to find shelter at an abandoned tavern after escaping the battlefield through a heavy snow storm. There they meet Doo-soo (Ko Chang-Seok), a soldier of their unit, who has fled the battlefield at an early stage. Heon-myeong would behead Doo-soo for this delinquency if he knew that he is from his own unit and so Doo-soo toys with the idea to kill the general first. But not only this soldier may be after his life but also his friend Do-yeong since the general in contemplation of death confessed to him on the battlefield that he has betrayed Do-yeong's father and therefore is responsible for his execution. Heon-myeong now has to consider making the first strike before being slain by his friend. Exhausted the three soldiers find shelter in the tavern and can't keep the eyes from each other while at the same time Ming soldiers are almost at their doorstep...

Review: "The Showdown" marks the directing debut of scriptwriter Park Hoon-jung ("I Saw the Devil") and shows that a promising director could enrich the Korean movie world here. The film is cleverly written, offers a lot of twists and its chamber play-like structure creates a certain amount of thrill. The directing is also very elegant and attests to a fine sense for aesthetic picture composition. Unfortunately, the story looks too artificial and the dialogues sometimes feel too forced. There is a lot of repetition during the talks and so we often get the same feeling as in Quentin Tarantino's movies when he once again draws his dialogue-heavy insertions a bit too self-indulgently. This goes even that far that at some certain point a sort of inner restlessness starts to pile up in the viewer. The tension that lies in the air between the three characters is artificially kept to a simmer, however, at some points the movie is only running on fumes. Fortunately, the costume thriller can score with some new revelations in the end.

The battle at the beginning of the film and the following fight for survival in the snow storm can instantly take the viewer into an atmospherically tense movie world. The serenity of the tavern that is at the same time characterized by a certain tension lying in the air is the breeding ground for the following dialogue-heavy minutes. The pictures are standing out with a dark grey which stands in a pleasant contrast to the flashbacks in which most of the time garish colored sets are filling the screen. The three individuals in the tavern all have a reason to take each others' lives and the background information for that is revealed during the flashbacks in which secret intrigues and betrayal is uncovered. Accordingly, it's not easy to sympathize with the characters, though. Only Doo-soo, a simple farmer with a narrow intellect, deserves pity as he has been seperated from his family because of the arbitrariness of the aristocrats and has to fight for sheer survival in a gruesome world.

Park Hee-soon ("Miracle of Giving Fool", "A Family") is convincing as the stern general whose aim is to carve out a career, something that isn't possible to achieve for him outside the military because of his origin. Obviously he himself has issues dealing with his betrayal but his cold and ambitious nature makes him soon win the viewer's antipathy. Therefore, Jin Ku's ("Mother") portrayal of the soldier Do-yeong seems a lot more likable at the beginning, even the more as we can understand that he wants to take revenge for his father on his best friend. However, during the flashbacks it slowly comes to light that Do-yeong has character flaws as well since he can be really haughty and perfidious as seen when he gets a position that he doesn't deserve and which actually his friend worked hard for. Our sympathy is thus constantly shifting until we realize that except of Doo-soo no one of them really has a clean slate. The numerous twists bring quite some surprises to the foreground.

The tension raising dialogues are every now and then interrupted by little fights which, however, aren't really spectacular and apparently have only found their way into the movie because the director was worried that the pacing would have to suffer otherwise. In fact, the short sword duels seem somewhat forced. And the same goes for the tension. A few (in)discreet words are getting the explosove tension almost to a blowout and numerous cuts to the faces of the different parties and the moon in the firmament while only the sound of the wind is to be heard as it soughs through the wooden walls of the tavern are supposed to get us on the edge of our seat. But especially moments like those feel too forced since we have seen them one time too many in other works as well. Strangely, it is often the case in "The Showdown" that we get to see some nicely captured scenes but that they still don't work out the way they should have thanks to their technically flawless execution. The reason for that might be the repititive dialogues which bestow something unnecessarily theater-stage-like.

Fortunately, the flashbacks manage to break up the otherwise rigidly constructed story every now and then and give the characters in this unusual thriller more facets so that we always return to the tavern and the three individuals and yet have a slightly different picture of the characters present. The ending is especially worthwhile even though not as moving in dramatical respects than it could have been. The extremely tense atmosphere of the movie and the fact that despite the flashbacks we get the feeling to watch three characters captured in a restricted place becoming victims of their own human flaws lead to the educated guess that the director hadn't that big of a budget at hand and still managed to create something worthwhile out of it. Also, a good soundtrack carries the movie to the end and so it's just the too artificial looking screenplay that is blemishing the overall picture. Nonetheless, the movie manages to create a certain goodwill thanks to its premise and the technical adaption of the material which makes a recommendation seem justified.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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