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Memories of the Sword
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by Jay Seaver

"An average swordswoman film is still generally worth watching."
3 stars

A sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was supposed to open on Imax screens this weekend, but that seems to have fallen into some bizarre limbo. As South Korea's "Memories of the Sword" begins, one might naturally think that this Korean film fills the gap rather precisely. Despite the strong surface resemblance, it's not the modern classic that "Crouching Tiger" is, but it knits its melodramatic pieces into something quite enjoyable by the end.

It starts off by introducing the audience to Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun), an exuberant peasant girl with gravity-defying swordfighting skills, who upon leaping over the garden's highest sunflower races into town to challenge Yool (Lee Jun-ho), the local champion in the combat games presided over by General Yu-baek (Lee Byung-hun), capturing a bit more attention than she probably should. That's why when she returns home, her blind foster mother Wol-su (Jeon Do-yeon) gives her a dressing down - she has not raised and trained Hong-yi since infancy just for fun, but so that she can, upon turning twenty, kill two people, traitors from the day when "The Three Great Swords" - her father Pung-chun and lovers Sul-rang and Duk-gi, fought their last battle.

There are lies in that description. There have to be, as the screenplay by director Park Heung-sik and co-writer Choi Ah-reum is built on deception, secret identities, and other things that would genuinely qualify as spoilers if the early scenes of this movie were described honestly. Piling deception and revelation on top of one another like that has brought many, many films to the brink of collapse, but Memories of the Sword seems to tacitly acknowledge that this setup is the work of people not in their right minds, so warped by greed, guilt, and rage that their true selves are hidden not just as a practical thing but as an almost natural response to their corruption. By the end, it makes an odd kind of sense, and the operatic sweep of the story has a very appealing grandeur.

Despite that, the details can be very sloppy. Early on, for instance, Hong-yi makes sure to cover her face and drop her voice an octave so that spectators will think that the mystery contestant is a man - a fun prelude to the disguises and re-inventions that will come later - but this drops mid-scene, and it seems to deserve a little more comment than it gets. There's also a mentor character - and, understand, Lee Kyeong-yeong is a delight in that role - who seems to spend the first half of the movie a bit more visible than lurking in the shadows, sort of waiting to have a purpose to fill. A flashback to an ominous pronouncement does not actually fit anywhere in the story's timeline, and the filmmakers really never do figure out what to do with one character. It's forgivable when the film is wowing, less so at other times.

It wows at points, looking as nice as most in the last ten or fifteen years of Korean period pieces - colorful, classy, and occasionally larger than life. When the martial-arts action works, it's great, heightened and maybe sometimes a little pretentious in its staging, but eye-catching enough that one really doesn't want to complain. The thing is, that's an awful thin line, and it reminds one of just how perfect what Ang Lee and Yuen Woo-ping pulled off in Crouching Tiger was. There's often a feeling of masslessness as Hong-yi and others land on things that won't support their weight or make amazing leaps, even when it's not digital stuntpeople. Park also goes very heavy on the slow motion late in the movie, to the point where it becomes funnier than dramatic.

Kim Go-eun on-screen tends to make one overlook a number of faults, though. A fast-rising star in the South Korean film industry, she handles everything thrown at her pretty well, from her cheery introduction to her tortured finale, and does pretty well where action is concerned as well. Her absence is also keenly noted when the film is directed elsewhere. She's not first-billed, though, because Lee Byung-hun is a global movie star (even if his English-language output has thus far been disappointing). Lee is impressive for how chameleonic he is here, although that sometimes works against the flashiness of the other performances. Lee Jun-ho is in a similar boat as Yool, capable but not nearly as memorable as the women. Jeon Do-yeon, on the other hand, works the same sort of changes in characterization as Lee Byun-hun, but often projects an intensity that grabs the audience's attention.

It's a bit of a shame that Kim and Jeon don't get the confrontation they deserve once the cards are on the table at the end, but expected; this movie is never away from its swords for long and it would be disappointing if after all that, things were resolved with harsh words. As swordswoman dramas go, it's not bad at all, even if it is hard not to compare it with classics and find it not quite on their level.

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originally posted: 08/29/15 16:07:05
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  28-Aug-2015 (NR)



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