Film Review: Memories of the Sword

Lavish Korean historical epic has many things going for it, but a bewildering plot and an undeniable repetitiveness undermine its intent.
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Set in the Goryeo era (c. 10th to 14th centuries), Park Heung-sik’sMemories of the Sword spins the saga of teenage girl warrior Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) and her determination to kill two anti-imperial fighters, her own blind mother, Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon), and Mom’s ex-lover, Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun), who murdered her father. Further complicating things is the backstory of Sul-rang and Duk-gi, who loathe each other due to the death years ago of Sul-rang’s sweetheart, whom Duk-gi betrayed.

Sweeping, lavish and epic are the adjectives for this historical fantasy. Unfortunately, confusing and monotonous could also be applied, as the film, although never less than richly pictorial, soon becomes repetitive and overlong, with its periodic use of flashbacks that seem to make the same point over and over again without clarifying the diffuse plot strains.

What keeps you watching are the performances of the women, Kim and Jeon. The former is a beauty in every way, from her physical aspect to the dizzying grace with which she performs the viciously swift martial-arts moves in the endless fighting scenes, abetted by whip-crack editing. (It’s also worth noting that, in plastic-surgery-mad Korea, she seems to be the one actor in the cast who has retained her original nose.) Jeon is equally adept in the movement department, and invests her queenly character with a simmering intensity that remains compelling, however incomprehensible the plot may get.

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