For some people, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin was too subdued in its dramatic pacing and action pursuits for its own good, too restrained with its mostly stoic heroine embroiled in her emotional assignment to kill someone close to her. One could easily view South Korea's Memories of the Sword as that film's antithesis, and perhaps what those viewers were more expecting out of the tale: it's full of overt drama, boasts vigorous battles and high-flying wire work, and encounters little downtime during its vivid two-hour runtime. While director Park Heung-sik telegraphs the punches and the production design with enough zeal, he stumbles in the areas where it really counts, with his experience in Korean melodrama knocking the film's historical tempo off-balance with too much weepiness and outlandish, often flustering twists. Reputable performances can only carry the absurdity of a story so far, which is where Park Heung-sik's work really goes awry, unable to shake off fundamental weaknesses.
Set during the Goryeo Dynasty of medieval Korea, Memories of the Sword first depicts the skills of a young martial-arts disciple, Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun), as she lunges across a sunflower field. Her new confidence after completing a trial sparks a solitary trip to the mainland city, and it's here that she encounters the aristocrat Yoo-baek (Lee Byoung-hun). Once she arrives back at home after her eventful day, she recalls the meeting with her mother and instructor, blinded tea-house owner Wol-So (Jeon Do-Yeon), who then precedes to tell her pupil about the real purposes behind her training and this individual she met, which flashes back to a period of bloody revolts against domineering rulers. Hong-yi discovers that she's been raised for murderous intentions, designed to enact vengeance upon Yoo-baek for the role he played in both political and familial strife during the revolts. Driven by vengeance and confusion about her past, Hong-yi recklessly embarks on her journey to murder the ascending aristocrat.
Before Memories of the Sword delves into the layers of its story, there's a sense of untainted, genuine wonder to be found in Hong-yi's flight into society by herself, bridging the gap between the version of her as an unseasoned fighter and the version of her who could stand on her own if necessary. As the point-of-view soars across a sea of sunflowers toward bustling alleyways and into a coliseum of dueling warriors, all while she's adorned in vivid jade-colored garb that disguises her identity, director Park Heung-sik establishes a lavish visual language for his period epic that never relents throughout its runtime. It's a mesmerizing movie to watch amid its diverse locations -- dense forests, expansive mountainous vistas, spacious palaces -- reflecting on similarities to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in its fusion of history and wuxia-style gliding across rooftops. Complimented by production design that's both ornate and unpretentious, there's never anything dull about the film's promising visual language.
Nor is there ever really a dull moment in the storytelling driving Memories of the Sword, but that's not really a positive here as it copies the likes of Crouching Tiger and other martial-arts epic cut from the same cloth. Everything about Hong-yi's creation into this talented seeker of vengeance relies on a strange premise born of karmic recompense and duty, and the rationale behind Wol-so's tutelage makes little sense once the extent of the young assassin's predetermined purpose, and the short list of people she must kill, becomes known. Her story tends to be secondary, however, to that of her target, Yoo-baek, a harrowed yet resolute general whose ambition toward rising the ranks of aristocracy has conquered his grasp on morality, and the attention seems misdirected. The performances here are convincing -- the youthful exuberance and angst of Kim Go-eun; the stony despondence of both Masquerade's Lee Byung-hun and Secret Sunshine's Jeon Do-Yeon -- yet they're not convincing enough to mask stiff narrative pursuits or the shallowness of the aristocrat's scheming.
Populated with cackling murderous rulers, arty voiceovers describing water boiling as a metaphor for unrest, and lots of tearful drama between heavy-handed flashbacks, Memories of the Sword loosens its grasp on the potential of its martial-arts spirit and instead reaches for soap-opera melodramatics. The moments of beautifully-orchestrated action that do appear in the film -- from clashes in tight hallways to wide-shot, open-aired battles amid falling snow -- struggle against the relentless and absurd twists that continuously slice open hole after hole in the unconvincing plot. Instead of leaving one spellbound by a blending of drama and mythical action, it lulls enough to lead those watching to ponder things like the fragility of aristocratic security and the incredible progression in fighting skill that can take place in just a week or two of training, as well as making one wonder how many times Hong-yi will break down in tears before she gets to draw her blade in the final battle. Park Heung-sik's film may be a more energetic tale of an assassin, but it's neither as coherent nor as genuine as its peers, both grand dramatic epics and deliberate meditations alike.
Video and Audio:
Memories of the Sword swoops onto Blu-ray from Well Go USA with a stunning 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer, robustly capturing the colorful, textured cinematography while focusing on historical costumes and set design. The ripples and waves present in Hong-yi's once-crumpled face mask offer an early indication of the clarity to come, offering delicate details in the fabric and very finely-represented shadows cast by natural light. Leaves in dense forests, destroyed wooden furniture in a dilapidated house, and the myriad angles and overlapping metallic plates in a palace drum up dense, razor-sharp fine details in the set design, as do the droplets of rain and snow in slow-motion that appear later on. There's no shortage of close-ups, either, and the delicate details of skin textures and facial hair are top-shelf quality here. My only complaint comes during a few scenes with digital backgrounds and the fluidity of the 24p motion, which renders jerky movement with the panning camera. Other than that, it's an immensely satisfying high-definition feast for the eyes from Well Go USA.
The Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track telegraphs a fierce punch while accompanying the fierce visual treatment, sporting deep and natural bass response with a good amount of atmospheric activity spread across the channels. Hard-hitting punches and kicks, the shooting of arrows, and the thud of wood upon surfaces give the lower-frequency channel a vigorous workout. Dialogue fluctuates in intensity depending on the scene, but it always sustains the utmost clarity and middle-range response, while also responding to environments -- echoing in large rooms, coexisting with nature in outdoor sequences -- in credible ways. While there are a few sequences that exhibit a little rear-channel activity, the back-end of the sound design mostly sticks to weather effects and the ambience of forests or crowds. The track stays vigorous where it needs to, delivers clear punches throughout, and does so without a hint of distortion. The English subtitles are exceptionally well-handled, nuanced and grammatically on point.
Only a Trailer.
Memories of the Sword might be a beautifully-shot and well-acted piece of work, one that moves briskly enough through its two-hour span, but it's not enough to overcome the cumbersome and largely irrational story underneath it. It's not the kind of martial-arts film with enough dazzling combat to justify a wonky story, instead one that banks on the performances to bolster its melodramatic overtures into the realm of integrity. The caliber of performances might improve matters, but they cannot shake off the underlying, fundamental oddities of the plot or the similarities its shares with other wuxia-style historical epics of its ilk. Rent It.