The Swordsman, a pacy, crisply choreographed South Korean action film set in the 17th century handicaps itself by opting for such a bland, generic title. It’s like naming a Hollywood action movie The Gunman or The Cop. Debutant writer-director Choi Jae-Hoon could have been a little more specific about the protagonist Tae-yul (played by boy-band-beautiful star and sometime rapper Jang Hyuk) by calling it The Blind Swordsman, given the character’s vision impairment. But then that title has already been used several times. Also, Tae-yul is not quite blind yet, although the threat to his vision and his need to access an expensive medicine hang over the plot throughout.
As it happens, the intricate tapestry of action, family drama, political intrigue and period spectacle is anything but generic. Unfolding during a period when ruling dynasties in China and Korea were in major flux, the story springboards off the fall of the Joseon dynasty’s 15th king; a disgrace in combat sends Tae-yul, one of the finest swordsmen in the country, into exile with his baby daughter.
Several years later, Tae-yul is living in rural isolation up a mountain; his daughter Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo) is now a young woman who longs for the finer things in life. The pair venture into society in search of a cure for his worsening eyesight, only to find that invaders from China’s Qing clan, led by Gurutai (Indonesian actor Joe Taslim, all the more menacing for never speaking above a whisper) are raiding the country, carrying away women to be sex slaves.
That only covers a fraction of the plot, but the film never feels bogged down with explication and moves swiftly through its 100 minutes. Then again, if you want simply to absorb this as a balletic dumbshow, interspersed with ace fight scenes and populated by people wearing fantastic costumes, it’s just as satisfying an experience.
• The Swordsman is released on 17 May on digital platforms.