09:00 - 7th September 2013, by David West

Blades Of Blood

A country divided can not stand, and Korea is ripped right down the middle. The incompetent Emperor is caught between the competing factions of the East and West Chambers, who can not even agree to disagree. Even as the members of the royal court bicker and squabble amongst themselves, the Japanese are preparing to invade. The Grand Alliance was formed to counter Japanese aggression, but when the lethal swordsman Lee Mong-hak seizes control of the Alliance's army, he sets his sights on the throne in Seoul. His justification for his rebellion is that the corrupt government can not save the people from the invaders and, as his army advances on the capital, all that stands in his way are the blind swordsman Hwang and his pupil Han Kyun-ju. For Kyun-ju, the mission to stop Mong-hak is personal, as Mong-hak killed his father in his coup to control the Grand Alliance.

Lee Joon-ik's historical action drama is another impressive offering from South Korea. Baek Sung-hyun stands out as Kyun-ju, the closest the movie has to a hero. However, he is no stoical sword-wielding superman, but the bastard son of a government official longing for acceptance. His very vulnerability, both emotionally and physically, make him all the more engaging. Kyun-ju's development as a warrior under the tutelage of Hwang has parallels with similar master-pupil relationships in martial arts classics like Drunken Master. Hwang does not teach Kyun-ju swordsmanship so much as beat the techniques into him, taking a gleeful delight in tormenting his unfortunate student.
The sightless swordsman Hwang inevitably brings to mind his Japanese predecessor Zatoichi. Both characters share the same cynical disposition and distrust of both the powerful and the power-hungry, and they are equally dishevelled. Hwang Jung-min brings a warm sense of mischief and a rasping voice that suggests a hard life to his portrayal of Hwang, while Cha Seung-won provides a steely counterpoint as Lee Mong-hak. Ruthless, seduced by power and utterly lethal, Mong-hak is saved from being a cliché by the little details that Cha brings to the role. Mong-hak's fateful duel with Hwang is a highlight of the movie, choreographed with great style and with an unexpected and moving outcome. The two combatants are old friends and the victor finds his triumph tainted by regret.

Han Ji-hye brings some beauty to the very masculine battles and power games as Baek-ji, a gisaeng (a courtesan, similar in social status to a geisha in Japan) who is in love with Mong-hak. More could have been made of their relationship, but Han is strong in her limited role as the woman who represents the conscience that Mong-hak has sought to leave behind in his bid for the throne. The scenes between Baek-ji and Kyun-ju are terrific.

They are both looking for the same man, one out of love, the other out of hate, and their strange shared target provides them with an unconventional bond that binds them together as they try to catch Mong-hak before he reaches his destination.

Blades Of Blood boasts gorgeous locations, blood-soaked sword fights, a strong cast and a tragic finale. Swords and tissues at the ready!
SCORE: 4/5
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