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The Swordsman (2020) Review

When you think of wuxia, Korea is not the country that comes to mind. Unless you’re adding zombies to the plot, of course. The Swordsman (Geom-gaek) from writer/director Choi Jae-Hoon being one of the few recent exceptions I can think of. And as if he’s not sure of the response it’ll get, he hedges his bets by casting Indonesian action star Joe Taslim (The Night Comes for Us, Mortal Kombat) as one of the main villains to give it international appeal.

Tae-Yul (Hyuk Jang, The Client) was the Joseon Emperor’s bodyguard until his mentor Seung-Ho (Jeong Man-Sik, Rampant, Beasts Clawing at Straws) overthrew him in a coup. Rather than join the new rulers, he disappeared into the countryside to live a peaceful life. We all know how that tends to turn out.

Now, years later, he’s losing vision in one eye. He and his daughter Tae-Ok (Hyeon-soo Kim, Horror Stories) venture into town to see a doctor. They’ve picked a bad time, as Qing slavers led by Gurutai (Joe Taslim) are there as well.

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When his daughter makes the mistake of returning to town alone and falls victim to them, Yul must take up the sword again to rescue her. But to do that he’ll not only have to face Gurutai and his men but his former mentor as well.

The Swordsman runs 101 minutes, but it’s not until around the fifty-minute mark that the action really starts. The fact that while the basic plot is fairly simple, think taken but with swords. There is, however, a lot of dynastic politics involved. And that’s on top of the expected personal issues, hidden identities, etc.

How interesting you find these kinds of details and historical background will determine how much you enjoy the first half of The Swordsman. Personally, I could have done with it being handled in a more condensed manner. I know there is an audience that loves that kind of historical drama, but if I’m watching an action film, I don’t want to wait forever for the action.

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The action, once we get to it, is plentiful and well-staged. There are plenty of acrobatics mixed into the fights, and they’re enjoyably flashy and energetic. They aren’t the wild wire-fu moves wuxia films from Hong Kong and China have accustomed us to seeing. I found this a nice change. Let’s face it, there are only so many times you can see people running through the air before you want something that’s at least somewhat realistic.

For those that need some superhero type scenes, don’t despair, The Swordsman does have something for you. It’s set around the time firearms were being introduced to Asia. This means we get a Matrix-style scene where Yul dodges bullets while decimating a squad of soldiers. It’s an impressive scene, brought down a bit by some really bad CGI blood. With all the improvements in CGI over the years, you think they’d have found a way to make it look convincing by now

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Of course, it all comes down to a final battle between Yul and Gurutai, and it doesn’t disappoint. Their showdown delivers plenty of action and even manages to come up with a few surprises. I believe this is the first time Taslim has played this kind of role, but you can’t tell it from his swordplay. I wish he had more chances to show it off, though. His character spends too much of the film talking and not enough fighting.

The Swordsman has been released in South Korea and a few other countries. According to Wikipedia, it’s been sold to 55 countries, but I haven’t heard any word of a North American release. It’s a good enough film I would expect to see Well Go or Netflix announcing they have the rights to it.

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