Many years ago, a peasant uprising led by the legendary 3 Swords goes awry when Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) betrays the band of warriors by aligning with the corrupt king and murdering Poong-chun (Bae Soo-Bin). Distraught, Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) flees with Poong-chan’s infant daughter Hong-yi, vowing revenge. 18 years later, Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) has become a master swordsman thanks to the tutelage of the now-blind Seol-rang, and upon learning of her tragic history embarks on a quest to avenge her father.
Memories of the Sword is perhaps best described as a Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, a particularly bold undertaking by writer/director Park Heung-sik considering the its very Chinese origins and the quality of titles to emerge. To his credit, Memories of the Sword is a handsomely shot film and often features beautifully composed sequences as characters interact with stunning natural landscapes. The film owes a huge debt of gratitude to cinematographer Kim Byeong-seo as he employs wuxia traits to make a visually engaging and stylised piece of work that is rare in K-cinema.
Yet Memories of the Sword falls apart due to its highly convoluted plot and poor narrative structure. Attempts to create melodrama and intrigue between characters quickly become tedious as the relationships and shared histories presented are laborious to endure, while big reveals that could have injected tension into the story are haphazardly divulged. As such, it’s often difficult to tell whether Memories of the Sword is a reverential wuxi undertaking or a parody of the genre.
Both Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Byung-hun are without a doubt two of the most talented actors in Korean cinema, and it’s a genuine delight to see them interact on screen together. Jeon Do-yeon in particular stands out in Memories of the Sword as she injects a passionate intensity and humanity into Seol-rang, an impressive feat given the character is so thread-bare. Kim Go-eun is also a great talent as witnessed in A Muse, yet here she appears to be in completely different film to her co-stars as she overacts her way through scenes with youthful glee.
In terms of action, no one fairs especially well when it comes to the martial arts sequences and wire-work essential to the film. The choreography is competent but generally uninspired, failing to generate the required investment to make the thrills riveting viewing. While watching it’s impossible to not recall superior examples of the genre – notably Hero and House of Flying Daggers, from which Memories of the Sword appears to take so much influence – and wish to be watching them instead.
Memories of the Sword is visually impressive Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, yet aside from a selection of beautifully composed scenes the martial arts adventure falls flat.