Many years ago, Val Kilmer talked about how the original Tombstone director got replaced and one of that guy’s crimes was making the actors wear accurate textiles, which doesn’t matter on film. You can have a lightweight poncho and it’ll look the same on screen.
I don’t know if it’s the benefits of shooting in 8k or whatever, but even though The Swordsman is not a cheap movie, it looks like a cheap movie because you can tell the costumes are very modernly produced. It’s very distracting because it never stops. There’s always something else onscreen to wonder about. To be fair, of course, it’s not just the costumes. The movie looks so hyper-real the sets look like a renaissance faire; so if Korea has Joseon Faires… Swordsman looks like they filmed it on the off-season.
Some of that responsibility falls on cinematographer Son Won-ho, who shoots Swordsman way too flat. Director Choi is going for un-steady Steadicam for reality’s sake or whatever, but Son shoots it documentary-reality. Like, I would much rather watch the movie where pseudo-costar Jeong Man-sik figures out Mr. Big villain Joe Taslim is a comically bad actor and then Jeong talks about it in an interview segment, but unfortunately Swordsman is a historical action movie and Taslim’s supposed to be serious.
Even though he really adds to the Joseon Faire thing because he’s like if the owner had a talentless but good-looking enough kid who made a movie in the summer. Or winter. Whatever. Offseason. Oh, and for no reason at all brought along his white wife (Angelina Danilova). Everything except a couple times it appears Taslim laughs out-of-character with Taslim and Danilova (who, to be fair, isn’t in it much but is cringe whenever she’s around) is appallingly bad.
Swordsman runs an hour and forty. When Taslim shows up, it seems like he might just be a cameo.
Half the movie is laughably bad thanks to Taslim. While the whole movie raises an eyebrow thanks to costumes and sets.
The other half of the movie, about former king’s guard Hyuk Jang now raising the dethroned and presumably decapitated king’s daughter, Kim Hyeon-soo, in hiding. She’s a teenager now and she wants to go into town to the mall or whatever and so Hyuk finally takes her. Oh, and Hyuk’s blind, which is entirely unimportant and just how they get him to town.
So Taslim’s dad is ruler of the Chinese Qing dynasty and they’re forcing the Koreans to give them their daughters so the Koreans have to buy them back or else. Swordsman never gets darker than when it’s fairly callous about the whole kidnapped women in cages being sent to China to be sex slaves. It’s arguably glib about it.
But Kim’s charming and Hyuk’s not bad, he just hasn’t done his returning hero arc yet so we don’t know if he’s going to be good as the Korean Zatoichi.
The sword fight choreography is pretty good for a lot of Swordsman, just not like… the beginning or the ending.
For a while it seems like the film might be able to get over some of its problems for a satisfactory resolve—the second act gets good—but it does not. It’s a bummer.
Especially since everyone interesting disappears in the third act. Instead it’s Jeong not paying off in his extended cameo, lots of bad Taslim, lots of middling Hyuk, and a little bit less sword fighting than you’d want. They’re saving up for the disappointing final battle.
Gong Sang-ah is good in a small part as the shop owner of the Joseon Faire tchotchke shop who apparently wet-nursed Kim as a baby and is majorly into Hyuk. Lee Na-kyung is less good as the big city shop owner who gets duped into human trafficking because… I mean, she’s a woman and Choi’s script isn’t very good. Lots of bland misogyny.
There are also Taslim’s three goons who Hyuk has to fight his way through in the game. They look very silly because of the costuming and photography, but they’re still better than Taslim.
Having Taslim as the bottom really does make even the worst supporting performance a delight because it means the camera isn’t on Taslim.
So, lots of solid sword fighting action—even though it doesn’t seem like there will be—but nowhere near good enough to make up for the rest. And, lastly, if you do see The Swordsman, opt for a low resolution. It might help.
Not sure what would help with Taslim though. Maybe the dubbed version.”