THE SWORDSMAN Review: Choi Jae-Hoon’s Feature Debut Sets The Stage For Jang Hyuk’s Rising Starpower
2022 has been a banner year for actor Jang Hyuk who just recently toured his latest action thriller, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Killer, in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City where he donned his best charm upon receiving the Daniel A. Craft award for Excellence In Action Cinema at the New York Asian Film Festival last month. In good company, Jang and his team also managed to bring along another celebrated title to mark the occasion at the NYAFF with a screening of Choi’s 2020 feature debut, The Swordsman.
Choi garnered a few notches on his belt in the field of art direction and production design on films like Detective Mr. Gong, 2007’s The Cut and Kim Cheol-han’s Outlaw in 2010. I haven’t seen these films yet myself, but they’re worth highlighting for those who may still be new to Choi and his work, particularly as he becomes more well known following his first three directorial outings, with 2021 thriller, The Hypnosis, being his second.
Whatever your style or take is when it comes to Choi though, the fact is he’s proven himself to be an ample and versatile director over the last several years. That his first film, The Swordsman, would be a Joseon action drama featuring one of South Korea’s most popular stars, and joining him with one of Indonesia’s most sensational international film and television stars today in The Raid and Furious 6 actor Joe Taslim, feels rather ubiquitous as it does climacteric, in that it sets in motion a narrative for fans to go by when it comes to his work, much in the vein of filmmakers such as Ryoo Seung-wan, Jesse V. Johnson, Isaac Florentine, or Ryuhei Kitamura.
I would even go as far to say the name Lee Jeong-beom given that his 2010 thriller, The Man From Nowhere, gets some pretty signature fan nods in Choi’s own inspired work, each with narratives featuring a stoic protagonist thrust into danger and must turn back into their former ways in order to resuce someone who deserves a better life. In Choi’s case here prior to The Killer, he gives us The Swordsman, a 16th century actioner about an ailing former royal guardsman who has no choice but to unsheath his old sword once more, when the young girl he vanished with and raised as his own after refusing to join the mutiny against the 15th king gets kidnapped years later by a menacing gang of executioners who serve to traffick prisoners and women.
Jang has the role of once pacifistic-turned-comeback killer Tae-yool down to a T, and whose physicality easily matches that of actor and recording artist Lee Min-hyuk, who plays a younger version of him in the film’s earlier flashback scenes. The same goes for Jeong, who plays a celebrated military leader on his way out, only to once again find himself crossing swords with the former guardsman he once nearly blinded.
You certainly have to credit Choi for peppering up the casting by way of Taslim as Gurutai, an imperial Qing executioner who happens to speak Korean, in addition to tackling sword choreography for the part. His character’s own fighting skills don’t get a showing of their own until he duels Tae-yool, although you can’t help but reflect on some of the intense moments between him and Min. You get the sense that Min regrets merely following orders and subjecting to the impending intrusion of Qing influence, as well as an increasing curiousity for what would happen if these two elite swordsman clashed instead. By not dueling, it paves the way for Min’s own development as we track Tae-yool’s journey and phased re-emergence out of hiding and back into the martial world.
It can’t be said enough how top-notch the action is, featuring martial arts sequences by Hong Eui-jong (The Admiral: Roaring Currents) and Lee Sang-ha (My Punch-Drunk Boxer). The opening action scene lends one of the most exquisite introductory swordfighting sequences you’ll ever see, with Choi never losing sight of the overall aesthetic, even with a oner sequence midway in the film in which Tae-yool takes out a small army of Qing riflemen. It’s an ambitious move on Choi’s part as he could have played it safe and shot it standard with nothing particularly adorning special added to augment the scene apart from Jang’s own screen caliber and that of the stunt performers, but he took a gamble there, and it pays off handsomely.
While Choi’s The Killer has to be one of the biggest investments I’ve seen for Jang in the years since he landed in many of our sights with niche fantasy hit film, Volcano High, The Swordsman has rightly earned its place in shaping the momentum of Jang’s rise. The film won him the Actor Award at last year’s 3rd Chungbuk International Martial Arts and Action Film Festival, which pairs both films nicely to the benefit of the star/director duo when factoring in this year’s ceremony at NYAFF.
If you live in North America, you’re right in the market for The Swordsman, which is currently available on disc and digital from Well Go USA, as well as on niche streamer, Hi-YAH! where you can also find recent Gangland crime thriller, Paid In Blood, which also stars Jang in villainous and menacing form. Beyond this, it only feels right that Jang and Choi get to work with each other again on the right project after batting two-for-two together and still scoring tremendously. I further hope these films only boost Jang’s profile even more as they should have after Volcano High, in which case we may consider ourselves (officially) on notice.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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