Movies · Reviews

South Korea Delivers Historical Thrills With Assassination and Memories of the Sword

By  · Published on August 29th, 2015

Well Go USA

The folks at Well Go USA have long been fans of South Korean cinema, and happily they’ve made a habit of opening new Korean films here in the United States so the rest of us can share in the joy. Two new releases have hit our shores, and while they’re completely different experiences they’re both period action films with strong female leads. Honestly, that should be enough to get you into a theater seat, but if not keep reading for more reasons.

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Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century left a high death toll, but as cruel as the oppressors got the nation’s resistance fighters refused to abandon their efforts. A mission is planned to take out a Japanese commander named Kawaguchi and Kang In-guk, the high-ranking Korean sympathizer who’s been working with the invading force to further his own life and wealth. A failed attempt a year prior in Shanghai leads the rebels to put together a three-person team for a second effort in Seoul.

Leading the trio is Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun), a sniper known for her precision and persistence, while the two men under her command bring their own specialties to the table. Chu (Cho Jin-woong) is a tough gunfighter, and Hwang (Choi Dok-mun) is an expert in making things go boom. Unbeknownst to them though, a traitor in their midst has set a pair of mercenaries on their trail with orders to kill. The setup is straightforward enough, but as the time of the planned assassination approaches new enemies are discovered, unexpected allies are forged and a secret from Ahn’s past threatens to derail the entire plan.

Director Choi Dong-hoon has found something of a niche for himself best summed up as sprawling action/adventures stuffed to the seams with characters, subplots and action beats. His three prior films – Tazza: The High Rollers, Woochi, The Thieves – cover a wide array of topics ranging from gambling to magic to heists, but they share in their highly energetic entertainment. Assassination follows that trend to deliver beautifully crafted action sequences, a colorful gallery of characters and more story than it needs.

To that last point, the film is overstuffed as it attempts to continually add new dramatic wrinkles to the mix. Ahn’s past is the main offender as an event from her youth plays into the current situation in ways that feel far more gimmicky than integral, but even though the subplot is unnecessary anything that keeps the focus on Jun can’t be too bad. While still best known for her title turn in My Sassy Girl Jun’s been transitioning into something of a convincing and compelling action star. The Thieves played up her feminine appeals too, but here she’s allowed to commit fully to the life of a deadly resistance fighter who understands the gravity of what she’s fighting for.

While that tertiary plot thread stands out negatively the second one – the two mercs hired to kill the assassins – adds greatly to the action and unfolding drama. Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-su) are in it for the money, but when patriotism overrides their pocketbook all bets are off. The two add heroics and humor to what could have been a more dire affair.

Assassination risks losing its engagement with the audience thanks to a somewhat silly subplot and a potentially overlong running time, but the central characters, war-time intrigue and exhilarating action set-pieces succeed at holding our attention until the final shot is fired.

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Well Go USA

Well Go USA

Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) has been training since childhood for something very special. Her parents were murdered when she was just a baby, and the blind woman who’s raised her has worked to prepare the girl for a mission of revenge. Somewhere out there are the two people responsible for making her an orphan, and when Hong-yi is ready she’ll use her finely honed fighting skills to end their lives.

But how will she know when she’s ready? When she can leap over the tallest sunflower in the field, obviously.

Running parallel to her efforts is the story (told via flashbacks) of her parents and the betrayal that led to their demise. Her father, Pung-chun, was part of a three-person resistance during the Goryeo era – “when tea, riots, and swords dominated” – alongside Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun) and Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon). The latter two ultimately trade their loyalty to Pung-chun for the good graces of the reigning lord thereby setting in motion a tale of vengeance spawning nearly two decades.

Memories of the Sword applies Hong Kong’s wuxia style of martial artistry to tell its slice of pseudo Korean history, and it lets you know right off the bat (via that sunflower leap) just how committed it’s going to be to the use of wire-fu. Very. ‘Very’ is how committed it’s going to be. It’s not a deal-breaker though as the action is well-choreographed, the production design is visually exciting and the story is just compelling enough.

There are two big plot turns at play here, and while one is fairly obvious to guess from early on the other manages to land with impact. Stronger character work and more depth would have greatly improved both though as well as the film in general. There’s tragedy afoot, but we just don’t feel the weight of it all as strongly as we should.

Director Park Heung-sik somewhat makes up for the script’s shortcomings though with style and an eye for gorgeously-shot set-pieces. Fights are airy, fluid affairs utilizing slow motion and speed ramping in equal measure, and there’s a hint of Zhang Yimou’s Hero in the film’s use of color. The third act in particular presents an action sequence set against a snowy backdrop that shifts scale with immediate grace and beauty.

Kim’s young hero is physically capable and hits some successful emotional notes late in the film, but her bubbly display feels somewhat out of place early on. It’s a rough start for a character we should believe in sooner. The dramatic weight the film does attain comes courtesy of the more experienced Lee and Jeon who portray the shifting emotions of their duplicitous characters’ past and present with real humanity.

Memories of the Sword is an engaging tale that may not reach the level of epic but should appeal to fans of wuxia action and majestic visuals all the same.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.