Blades of Blood, a historical epic from Korean director Lee Joon-ik (The King and the Clown, is a mixed bag. On one hand it’s a sweeping story of political intrigue, personal revenge, and familial honor. On the other, the film is jumbled, overly busy, and never fully delivers on the potential it holds.
Blades of Blood begins in 1591, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Korea. Even though their borders are about to be breached, the majority of the governmental officials are caught up in lame power struggles and ineffectual bureaucracy that is little more than endless bickering and tedious maneuvering. Mired in violence, this is an era when dissent doesn’t only bring punishment down on you, but also your children, your friends, and your corpse.
Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) sets out to raise a rebel army, a so-called Grand Alliance, in order to not only bring peace to his homeland, but also protect his nation from foreign incursion. The Alliance is action oriented, in direct opposition to the constantly squabbling political parties of the day, though you are never quite sure if Lee acts out of true patriotism or a greedy lust for power. He’s an idealist turned bitter by what he sees, but is his end goal what it seems on the surface, or something hidden and secret?
Legendary blind swordsman, Hwang Jeong-hak (Hwang Jung-min), stands in Lee’s way. The two were once allies, brothers in arms, but Hwang is out to track down and kill Lee for his increasingly brutal and unjust tactics. Hwang has a tag-a-long, Han Gyuen-ja (Baek Sung-hyun), the hot-tempered bastard son of a nobleman Lee murders. They have a sort of Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-san kind of relationship going on. Hwang mocks and abuses Han, making him carry their load and run errands for him, but also, on the sly, teaches him how to fight with a sword.
The plot plays out with a pseudo-western flair, which sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. Hwang’s blind master is a character you’ve seen before—a clownish hobo who doesn’t look like much, and whom no one takes seriously, until it’s time for him to bust out his secret badass skills in battle and blow everyone away. Despite a thirst for bloody vengeance, his character is too light and fluffy and comical. The balance is all out of sorts. He trades acupuncture for sex with prostitutes, and banters back and forth with everyone he encounters, and occasionally cripples a bounty hunter or two.
The pace of Blades of Blood tries to be deliberate and dramatic, but often winds up being slow and boring. There’s too much repetition. Hwang and Han go here and there looking for Lee. Lee goes to this place and that, trying to drum up support and doing away with those who stand against him. You get why it’s there, but the point is beaten into the ground over and over again. For a movie with so much going on—an invasion, a rebellion, a love story, multiple tales of revenge, political strife, and more—it meanders all over the place and never gets to a point. A prime example is the weird love-triangle thing between Han, Lee, and Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), a concubine. It’s never developed, never goes anywhere, and comes across as nothing more than an excuse to have a pretty face onscreen for a while.
One thing that can save drab, dreary film, is action. After all, you expect a certain something out of a movie called Blades of Blood, right? But while there are ample action scenes, sequences of exquisite swordplay, and battles galore, even these fail to live up to their promise to a degree. They start strong and get going, but, like the movie as a whole, they never deliver. Every time the film turns away from a fight, you feel like it’s over far too soon and that you’re missing a great deal of the scene.
Comparing Blades of Blood to other recent historical epics, like Hero or House of Flying Daggers—which maybe an unfair evaluation—one word comes to mind: scope. The action feels constrained, reigned in. Granted the production didn’t have the resources of some genre kin, but the moments where the film needs to be truly grand in scale never materialize. As a result the movie is truncated, like it comes right up to the precipice of greatness, but is never epic enough in magnitude to fit the necessities of the story.
Blades of Blood is very pretty, and does function a meticulous executed period piece. Costumes and sets are, down to the last detail, spot on, and even with Hwang’s occasional bouts of buffoonery, the acting is strong across the board. These are flawed characters carrying heavy loads. Unfortunately the pace bogs down, and the story ends up and muddy, directionless jumble.
The DVD package is pretty unremarkable. I was hoping for a glimpse into the historical period of the film, the costume design, or even the staging of the fights, but there isn’t much to hang your hat on. In reality the seven-minute “making of” feature is only a collection of behind the scenes footage from the set, and offers little insight. The four cast interviews are brief, each hovers around a minute-and-a-half, but are worth checking out. The most interesting is Hwang talking about how he prepared to play a blind man.