Weapon of Choice - Korea’s Period Swordfighting Tales
Sep 22, 2020
- Writerby Pierce Conran
The Spirit of ‘Muhyeop’ on the Big Screen
In the pantheon of Asian action cinema, Korea occupies an unusual, but unique space. While East Asian film industries have crafted action genres which have proven popular at home and overseas, Korea lacks its own a dominant action genre. Among others, judo and chanbara (samurai) in Japan, kung fu and ‘heroic bloodshed’ in Hong Kong and wuxia in China are labels that have become synonymous with their industries, and have been churned out at different times in the dozens, if not hundreds.
Korea may lack a dominant action genre, but as an industry that quickly grew sophisticated in the new millennium and was praised for its storytelling, innovation and technical sophistication, the film industry’s modern incarnation never really found reason to mass produce smaller action films. What we have instead are fewer titles spanning a far broader array of genres and storytelling modes.
Like many other countries, Korea has its own history of period action literature - muhyeopji. Roughly translated as the ‘chivalrous novel’, muhyeopji, or muyeop manhwa (for comic books) is an extremely popular form of serialized literature that has long been popular with youths. The stories focus on martial artists and their adventures, and are filled with violence, intrigue and often risque romance. Most of the time, these heroes wield a sword.
The muhyeop genre has spawned a number of films, many of them based on books or comic books, but unlike the mass-produced genre offerings of its East Asian neighbors, Korea’s sword fighting films pop up only occasionally and tend to be quite different from one another.
This week at KoBiz, we’re taking a look at some of the most notable entries in the ‘muhyeop’ genre. Beyond the films below, other titles belonging to the genre include Musa-The Warrior (2001), Sword in The Moon (2003), Shadowless Sword (2005), The Sword with No Name (2009) and KUNDO : Age of the Rampant (2014).
We start off with what is probably the most debatable entry in this list, RYOO Seung-wan’s irreverent martial arts action-drama Arahan (2004). Set in present day, Arahan (2004) features RYOO’s brother, RYOO Seung-bum, playing a naive cop who is injured by a martial artist while chasing after a criminal. She brings him to her home where he is healed by the six Masters of Tao. Their leader (AHN Sung-ki) believes he has a powerful ability and begins to train him. Meanwhile, legendary stunt choreographer JUNG Doo-hong plays Heuk-woon, an evil martial artist who escapes imprisonment and comes after the Masters of Tao.
Given the involvement of RYOO and JUNG, it’s no surprise that Arahan (2004) is heavily inspired by martial arts action cinema from Hong Kong, with lots of Jackie CHAN-esque comedy thrown into the action, and plenty of wirework, calling to mind Jet LI’s work. Swords feature heavily throughout the film, but RYOO and JUNG dispense with the instrument for the final confrontation (though it does start with blades). Swords would also feature in their future collaboration The City of Violence (2006), which this time would borrow from classic Japanese action cinema.
Based on a muhyeop comic book by BANG Hak-gi, LEE Myung-se’s extraordinary The Duelist (2005) is a singular addition to the period drama, action and even romantic genres in Korean cinema. HA Ji-won co-stars with GANG Dong-won and the pair go head to head in some of the most exquisite and balletic sword fighting scenes ever captured on film. HA was no stranger to action work at this stage in her career, having appeared in the TV drama Damo (2003), an earlier sword fighting epic also based on a work by BANG Hak-gi, and she would later pick up the instrument again for the Charlie’s Angels-style Joseon Era action-drama The Huntresses (2014).
HA plays Nam-soon, an officer working under Detective Ahn (AHN Sung-ki), who is trying to uncover the source of a counterfeiting scheme. Among their suspects are the National Security secretary and his gifted right-hand man, known only as Sad Eyes (GANG Dong-won). A chase and series of battles unfold between Namsoon and Sad Eyes, which seems to have less and less to do with the case, and more and more to do with something predestined between the pair.
Blades of Blood
Based on PARK Heung-yong’s comic book Like the Moon Escaping from the Clouds, this film follows Lee Mong-hak (CHA Seung-won), who leads a rebellion to take down the king so that he himself may ascend to the throne. His former ally Hwang Jeong-hak (HWANG Jung-min) stands in his way, while Kyeon-ja (BAEK Sung-hyun) is the bastard child of a man killed by Mong-hak who is hell-bent on revenge.
Blades of Blood was director LEE Joon-ik’s return to the period drama genre, after making three films with more contemporary settings. The most action-heavy of all his films, it features a relatively typical story of a power struggle for the Joseon throne, but this mostly serves as a pretext to fill the screen with plenty of sword fighting set pieces, particularly between leads HWANG Jung-min, whose blind swordsman is clearly a nod to the Zatoichi series, and CHA Seung-won, a noble but now corrupted fighter who could be the villain from any number of chambara films. The Japanese cinema references don’t quite end there, when a bullet rings out against one of the protagonists late in the game, calling to mind Akira KUROSAWA’s classic Yojimbo.
Memories of the Sword
Likely Korea’s most ambitious sword fighting action-drama, Memories of the Sword (2015) saw director PARK Heung-sik reunite with his My Mother, The Mermaid (2004) star JEON Do-yeon in an epic Goryeo Dynasty tale of love, power and betrayal. The lushly filmed project is performed with gravitas and conviction by a cast that also includes superstar LEE Byung-hun, who had previously appeared with JEON in The Harmonium in My Memory (1999), and the Eungyo (2012) ingenue KIM Go-eun.
Warriors Poong-cheon (BAE Soo-bin), Seol-rang (JEON Do-yeon), and Deok-gi (LEE Byung-hun) leads an uprising on the kingdom but on the verge of victory are betrayed by Deok-gi, who slays Poong-cheon. Seol-rang escapes with Poong-cheon’s daughter. 18 years later, the now blind Seol-rang is raising the girl Hong-ee (KIM Go-eun) in the ways of the sword. When Deok-gi enters their lives again, her skills and a prophecy are put to the test.
Looking to follow in the aforementioned films’ footsteps and leave its own indelible mark on the genre is this week’s new release The Swordsman. CHOI Jae-hun steps up to the director’s chair, after working as an art director for films like Princess Aurora (2005), directing a cast that includes JANG Hyuk of Flu (2013) and Indonesia martial arts star Joe TASLIM, known for The Raid and Fast & Furious 6.
JANG plays the legendary swordfighter Tae-yool, who retires and is not heard from again after his king has been removed from the throne. Troubles brew once more when the Qing imperial family starts to cause trouble in the kingdom, and when his daughter his kidnapped, he’s forced to pick up his sword again.