Marking the period drama return of award winning “The King and the Clown” director Lee Joon Ik, “Blades of Blood” was one of the most eagerly awaited Korean films of 2010. Based upon the manhwa comic ‘Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds’ by Park Heung Yong, the film is set during the Joseon era and charts a turbulent time of political upheaval, rebellion and invasion, coming to a head with a clash between swordsmen played by popular veterans Cha Seung Won (“Secret”) and Hwang Jung Min (“A Man Who Was Superman”). Supporting the headliners are younger stars Baek Sung Hyun (“Our School ET”) and Han Ji Hye (“My Boyfriend Is Type-B”), all caught up in a violent and bloody struggle to seize control of the country.
The film in begins in 1591, with Korea facing the threat of a Japanese invasion and being embroiled in internal political squabbling as the Eastern and Western councils face off against each other. Royal descendant Lee Mong Hwak (Cha Seung Won) attempts to unite the country and bring peace and justice with his Grand Alliance, but is branded a traitor by the court. Convinced that his is the only way to save the country, he raises a rebel army and sets out on a single minded crusade to eliminate his enemies and those former comrades who now stand in his way, and to claim the throne for himself. Opposing him is legendary blind swordsman Hwang Jung Hak (Hwang Jung Min), once his friend and ally but who now wishes to bring him to task for his brutal tactics and betrayals. Hwang is joined by Gyeon Ja (Baek Sung Hyun), the young illegitimate son of a nobleman killed by the rebel army, now desperate for revenge, and by Baek Ji (Han Ji Hye), Lee Mong’s lover, who tags along for her own reasons.
Although they are different films in a number of ways, “Blades of Blood” essentially works for the same reasons as “The King and the Clown”. Lee Joon Ik again proves himself to one of the few directors capable of really bringing history to life, and the film stands apart from the average costume blockbuster thanks to his style of grounded, believable storytelling, and a set of highly engaging and atypical characters. The plot itself is multilayered, and though it initially starts off seeming like a fairly straightforward revenge drama, with Hwang Jung and Gyeon Ja teaming up to bring down Lee Mong, it quickly becomes clear that Lee is equally interested in the bigger picture. As such, the film follows Lee Mong and the various political factions vying for power just as much as the vengeance seeking duo, who quite often fade into the background, with it becoming increasingly clear that their quest is superseded by the more important issue of the fate of the nation. Lee does a great job of keeping the story moving in gripping fashion, slowly upping the tension as the threat of Japanese invasion intensifies, and though the film is talky and at times dense, especially for those with no knowledge of Korean history, it is never dry or anything less than fascinating.
The film also benefits hugely from Lee’s refusal to let younger protagonist Gyeon Ja take centre stage, or to let his relationship with Baek Ji ever blossom into the expected romance. Indeed, the film is almost entirely driven by Hwang Jung and Lee Mong, whose dynamic as former allies who still respect each other despite their paths in life having diverged, is a very powerful one. If anything, Lee Mong is the film’s strongest character, and though having turned to brutal and ruthless methods, he remains sympathetic, or at least understandable, as he cuts a swathe through his enemies. The film is surprisingly even handed and unconventional in this respect, as Lee makes it very clear that the country is indeed in dire straights, seized by chaos and overrun by internal squabbling, and as such in need of a tough leader who is willing to make harsh decisions. Certainly, the two warring councils, and even the King, are portrayed as indecisive and motivated entirely by self interest rather than a desire to serve the nation, and though there is an ambiguous trace of this in Lee Mong as well, his determination and willingness to lay down his life for his beliefs make his actions hard to argue with at times.
The film is bolstered by a set of very strong performances, with Cha Seung Won suitably steely as Lee Mong, though at the same time still betraying a definite humanity, especially during the latter stages. Hwang Jung Min is also excellent as his conflicted nemesis, and although much of his screen time sees him gurning and cackling, he arguably does a far more convincing job in the blind swordsman than others have in the iconic role. Baek Sung Hyun is also impressive, and his relationship with Hwang Jung, most of which involves his being scolded and hit over the head by the older man, gives the film a few very welcome light hearted moments. Although she doesn’t have quite so much to do, with the film generally being a fairly manly affair, Han Ji Hye adds a few extra emotional notes as the tortured woman who loves Lee Mong almost in spite of herself, knowing that things are not likely to end well for them.
Despite its title, the film is not particularly bloody. There is a good amount of sword slinging action, mainly in the form of one on one duels, with a few larger scale battle scenes during the final act, most of which is very well choreographed, if overly laden with the use of slow motion. Lee does seem a little uncomfortable with these scenes, and they lack the same sense of assurance as the film’s human drama, at times feeling as if they don’t quite belong. Still, they are generally exciting, and do help to keep the film moving along at a good pace, and so this really isn’t too much of a criticism, though it will be interesting to see if this is something which Lee develops further upon in his career.
As things stand, “Blades of Blood” is definitely one of the best Korean period costume films of the year, and Lee again shows himself to be one of the best in the business when it comes to storytelling and flawed, human characters. Gripping and well acted throughout, the film has more depth and historical detail to lift it beyond the level of popcorn blockbuster, whilst at the same time remaining highly enjoyable and entertaining.
Lee Joon-Ik (director) / Seok-Hwan Choi, Cheol-Hyeon Jo (screenplay)
CAST: Seong-hyeon Baek … Gyeon-Ja
Kim Chang-Wan … Son-Jo
Seung-won Cha … Lee Mong-Hak
Ji-hye Han … Baek-Ji
Jeong-min Hwang … Hwang Jeong-Hak