The same week that The Diary of a Teenage Girl expands to Tarrant County (see above review), another teen movie hits our theaters. It’s called Memories of the Sword, and even though it’s somewhat derivative, this attractive and well-acted South Korean film is the sort of the martial-arts adventure that fans of the genre (or moviegoers freaked out by the idea that teenage girls have sex) might be more comfortable with.
The highly convoluted plot is set roughly 1,000 years ago, where Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) is as carefree as any girl can be who’s training to kill two specific people. She’s crushed when Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon), the blind woman who has raised her, reveals that she herself is one of her targets. Years ago, Sul-rang and her lover Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun) led a popular uprising, only to betray their cause and murder Hong-yi’s real parents. Now the girl has to avenge them by killing the woman she thinks of as her mother, plus a man who’s an immensely skilled fighter and the head of the country’s military.
You can easily see the influences at work with director/co-writer Park Heung-sik. The swordfighters flying through the air recall Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, individual fight sequences are heavily influenced by scenes from the Kill Bill movies, and the historical pageantry and sumptuous costumes are reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers. The only time Park achieves the fluidity of those films is during the climactic sequence when Hong-yi stages a singlehanded assault on a heavily guarded castle. That almost compensates for the howler of a plot development when one character, having been run through with a sword, is cured by … acupuncture! Wow, those medieval Korean acupuncturists must have been really good.
Fortunately, this film has some of the best actors South Korea has to offer. Lee has shown off his fighting skills in Hollywood movies like Red 2 and Terminator Genisys. Here, he also gets to project streaks of sadism and thwarted love in his villain, and he’s particularly menacing in a scene when this traitor turns on his new boss and shows his true colors to an impotently spluttering king (Kim Tae-woo). Conversely, Jeon is better known as a dramatic actress — if you haven’t seen her soul-cleaving performance in Secret Sunshine, you need to — but she looks quite credible whether she’s handling a sword or playing the guilt-ridden teacher bringing retribution down on herself. Lee Kyeong-yeong contributes some badly needed comic relief as an old swordmaster who tutors our heroine to fulfill her mission. A lead actress needs a powerful presence to hold up in this company, and the relative newcomer Kim Go-eun is more than equal to the task, whether she’s slicing her way through the royal guard or getting drunk at a bar after discovering her family secret. These actors keep Memories of the Sword watchable and give us faith that we’ll see them in better projects.
[box_info]Memories of the Sword
Starring Kim Go-eun, Lee Byung-hun, and Jeon Do-yeon. Directed by Park Heung-sik. Written by Park Heung-sik and Choi Ah-reum. Not rated.[/box_info]