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Blades of Blood
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by Jay Seaver

"Not what it could have been."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Just who and what is Lee Joon-ik's "Blades of Blood" (aka "Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds") about? It takes the form of a movie about an "avenging the slain family" movie, but smothers that story under a thick pillow of political intrigue that is frequently more interesting but does not amount to much in the end.

See, Korea is poised to come apart at the seams. Japan sees it as a road through which to invade China, the King's advisers in the East and West cabinets reflexively oppose each other, and even the popular Great Alliance movement is having a crisis of leadership, with the aggressive Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) taking control when a more moderate leader dies. One of his first targets is prominent Western noble Han Shin-kyun (Song Yeong-chang). Only a few members of Han's family survive the bloodbath, but one is a son, Han Kyun-ju (Baek Seong-hyeon), who had been ostracized as a bastard by his brothers for being born of a concubine. Kyun-ju tries to avenge his father's death, but is no match for Mong-hak. Fortunately, blind swordsman and doctor Hwang Jeong-hak (Hwang Jeong-min) is nearby, and he nurses Kyun-ju back to health and allows him to join him on the road to confront Mong-hak.

Here's the trouble: The Kyun-ju story just isn't that interesting. There's moments when it could be, most of them opposite Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), Mong-hak's concubine who winds up joinging him and Hwang on their journey. They strike up a friedship, and she challenges him on how he limits himself by allowing others to define him. But when all is said and done, he doesn't seem to mature that much and his story doesn't have any particular hook to it. It's just a guy being taken on by an odd mentor. Baek Seong-hyeon is actually quite good in the role, but the story doesn't give him anything great to do.

If the story had been about Mong-hak, though, that might have been something. Here's a charismatic if undeniably hostile figure taking over the reins of an organization created for the common good - with aims he still ostensibly believes in - and using it to further his own ambitions, possible because the government is deadlocked. No matter what your politics - or what organization/government those politics apply to - that's a setup that will likely resonate with you, and here manages to pull the audience in whenever it grabs screen time. When you consider that Cha Seung-won is playing him as a force of nature, it becomes compelling enough to overshadow what is nominally the main story. If Director Lee and the writers had recognized that this was going to be the good part, maybe they would have done more to tie Hwang and Kyun-ju in with him more directly - play up that Hwang is trying to tame a monster he inadvertently helped create, or the contrast between Kyun-ju's and Mong-hak's respective dreams and ambitions. Then you'd have a movie that really feels like it's about something.

Instead, It marks some time between action bits. These are some pretty good action sequences - Cha Seung-won makes an excellent swordsman, and Director Lee shoots the action well. It's bloody and brutal, the work of men looking not to create poetry of motion but to efficiently and overwhelmingly defeat their opponents, and because of that it attains a harsh glory; when watching those scenes, it's very clear that there will be no half measures, and the outcome will change the course of events by necessity.

The bulk of the movie isn't bad, by any means. Lee Joon-ik is returning to period intrigue for the first time since he enjoyed great commercial and artistic success with The King and the Clown, and he demonstrates the same flair for capturing the differences of the period setting while making it feel very modern and accessible, as well as a bit of a satirical ear that makes for wry comedy while contributing to the deadly earnest of the plots. He just can't seem to commit to someone being the focal point of the movie, whether that be Mong-hak, Kyun-ju, or Hwang.

It's disappointing. I wanted to love a period thriller by the maker of "The King and the Clown", but "Blades of Blood" just doesn't deliver on the potential that's so plainly visible.

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originally posted: 07/24/10 15:48:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/20/10 Eric Tessier Totally amazing, overwhelming movie 5 stars
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