Memories of the Sword (2015) Review: 협녀, 칼의 기억

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA with a rather belated review of a new Korean movie that hit theaters here like a whimper and quickly exited the box office in about 2 weeks. It is the so called marital arts historical epic “Memories of the Sword“ starring Lee Byung-Hun, Jeon Do-Yeon, and Kim Go-Eun.

Actually sad that Jeon Do-Yeon has another bomb on her hands this year.

Over the past year or less, the Korean box office has seen several Korean historical epics riding the whole past nostalgia wave open and fail miserably. And I do not mean just disappointing but “people are going to lose their houses” financially bad! Examples are “The Royal Tailor” (2014), Empire of Lust (2015), and “The Treacherous” (2015). “The Treacherous” (2015) fared slightly better but not by much.

In many ways, beyond the historical epic aspect, all of these movies roughly fall into the same category. They are essentially Korean fusion historical TV dramas transplanted to the big screen. They share the same rather narrow set of themes and character architypes with those Korean dramas. And this is where the problem lies. First, all of these movies suffer structural issues as the long form “stretched to the rim” script style of Korean TV Dramas does not translate well to 2 hour movies. Second, Korean dramas somehow tend to get away with basically being very similar. This is not true for movies where people actually have to leave home and pay money to see them. A movie needs a firm reason to exist and for the audience to shill out some cash.

Here it is about $8~9 for ticket in Korea.

Finally, the Korean TV drama and Korean movie audiences do not have enough overlap to make this type of movie financially viable. Korean dramas’ audience tend to be centered around over 35 years old housewives and elderly. The fusion historical dramas try to bring in more of the younger demographic to not stellar success. In any case, the core of the Korean dramas’ audience are not the demographic that makes movies successful at the box office. You have to capture the teens and under 30 year olds to have a chance at making your money back. Thus, these historical epic Korean movies were doomed from conception.

This does not necessarily mean that the movies were meant to be bad movies but just financially terrible ones. However, none of them are necessarily great movies because of the afore mentioned structural and thematic issues. “The Treacherous” (2015) is somewhat of an outlier here because it is simply “bat-shit-crazy and over the top.” If you are into that thing, it is worth the cost of admission. And I think I’ll get the Blu-ray when it comes out. Sadly, the same cannot be said of “Memories of the Sword” (2015).

The Plot
The movie is set in the late Goryeo dynasty which is becoming the popular time period to tell stories in. Considering how the Joseon dynasty rather is boring for telling the wider scope stories, this is understandable. In addition, it does help that we do not know much about the time period. This means that Korean movies can pretend they are Chinese movies rather than being the smaller scope Korean ones. If you are familiar with the late 80s and 90s Hong Kong marital arts historical epics, you have seen very similar movies to this one.

If you just read the subtitles, not sure you will see that this is not a Chinese movie immediately.

The movie is about 3 people or “swordsmen.” The two adult are former lovers with the man going off the dark side in pursuit of power while woman lives in over bearing shame and regret regarding the path her lover took and her behavior in the matter. Years later after the s**t when down, the woman is now blind and raising a girl to be a swordsman or more accurately an instrument in her retribution and redemption. And the man is sprinting up the ladder to somewhere that may satisfied his need to be more.

See a lot of Chinese movie tropes here?

The Action
Before going into the more heavy topics. Let’s get the whole discussion of the martial arts aspect out of the way. Is “Memories of the Sword“ Korea’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)? The answer is no.

For a martial arts movie, the martial arts which mostly consist of sword play is the least memorable thing. Actually, there are not that many action scenes in the movie. Memorable ones are even fewer. I would guess about two scenes.

A major issue is that the movie never really establishes what type of action and what kind of ground rules are in place regarding the action. Sometimes it is just normal sword play. Other times people fly around as if they had superpowers. In addition, there is not enough variety with in the action.

There was a lot of talk about the actors doing a lot of their own stunts in this movie and it shows. The camera works its butt off trying to hid the fact that Jeon Do-Yeon is really not suited for this type of physical performances. She simply do not have the physical capability. The other two of the main cast is thankfully better as they at least have the energy to get through the stunt. While Lee Byung-Hun and Kim Go-Eun do their best, this still does not make the action any more interesting although the last action sequence is somewhat interesting as it reminded me of the last one in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005).

Sword play…

Star Wars… and its legacy
I’m of the generation that grew up with “Star Wars.” I actually saw some of the movies in their original theatric run. Yes, I know that I’m old. While I’m not a person that sees “Star Wars” in everything, in many ways, I see a lot of “Star Wars” in “Memories of the Sword” (2015).

This may not be too surprising as “Star Wars” was hugely influenced by Asian cinema mostly Japanese samurai movies. There is an overlap there. Not only does “Memories of the Sword” (2015) has “swordsmen” with a nondescript sword fetish flying around as if they were Jedi, a lot of the character dynamics have similarities to those of “Star Wars.” The villain played by Lee Byung-Hun, who wears black like a bad ass, has a lot of Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker in him. The blind woman swordsman played by Jeon Do-Yeon can be seen as a twisted version of Padmé Amidala merged with a little Obi-Wan Kenobi.

You know the Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi relationship could be seen in coded gay terms if you think about it. I mean they had more chemistry on screen then the romantic coupling. I think there might be slash fiction regarding the two online.

Who am I kidding? It is the internet.
Of course there will be slash fanfiction about the two.

I got side tracked there for a moment. The girl played by Kim Go-Eun is then obviously a warped version of Luke Skywalker. Both start as these starry–eyed teenagers that go on an epic journey with swords. However, don’t be mistaken. I cannot say that “Memories of the Sword” (2015) is “Star Wars” set in ancient Korea either. The similarities are not that overt. It is just that I could see the connection between the two movies. And there is nothing wrong with having similarities with one of the most successful movie franchises in the world.


The problem is that having the “Star Wars” goggles on just emphasized the problems with storytelling this movie and Korean movies in general have. One of this biggest contribution to movies “Star Wars” made other than proving that you can merchandise the hell out of a movie is proving the “Hero’s Journey” formula works. This was so thoroughly proven that basically most Hollywood big popcorn movie follows it now.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

The internet has a lot of information about “the Hero’s Journey.” So, google it! But viewed in terms of the movie and audience relationship, it provides a roadmap on how to guide the audience through the changes that the protagonist has to go through in order to overcome steep challenges.

Korean movies in general largely fail to abide by this formula mostly because their attitude towards the audience is more onerous and insensitive. As a result, on an emotional level, Korean movies tend to be very blunt demanding the audience to accept drastic changes in character motivations and development on sheer say so alone. It is a very obtuse way of making movies.

“Memories of the Sword” (2015) is not an exception as it just states the characters’ motivations and characteristics without guiding the audience through them. This works okay when you are essentially at the end of the journey but not so well when you are following the journey from start to finish.

As a side similarity with the “Star Wars” prequels, “Memories of the Sword” (2015) primary mode of dialogue delivery is monologuing and voice over. You should get used to it although Lee Byung-Hun does quite well with that specific type of acting.

Whose Journey is This?
Now it is time to ask the following question.

Whose story is this?

You would think that “Memories of the Sword” (2015) was the teenage girl’s story. The movie is definitely structured that way. In many ways, “Memories of the Sword” (2015) is the original “Star Wars” trilogy compressed into one movie. It starts with a teenager experiencing an inciting event that kicks the story off. Yes, the story was well in play before this inciting event. But it was the teenage girl or “Luke” who turns the keys in the ignition although unbeknownst of the consequences.

However, once you see the movie, you will see that really this is not her story. Yes, she does kick off the story but that is basically the only agency she displays in the whole story. For the rest, she is just a story device and a pawn of others. The more I think about the character of the teenage girl, I get the feeling that she must have initially been part of the blind woman’s character but was spun off into a different character because the writer thought he or she was far more cleaver than he or she was. The story is more cohesive when you combine the two characters.

While this in itself is a problem, what exacerbates matters is that the movie does not really understand what it is doing; shown by the fact that it tries very awkwardly to make her the protagonist. I have to emphasize the word “awkward” as it represents the first 45 to 50 minutes of this movie. The script is very forced and makes not much sense. In addition, the dialogue is bad on the level of the “Star Wars” prequels. Even good actors such as Lee Byung-Hun and Jeon Do-Yeon cannot make the dialogue work. Relatively new comer Kim Go-Eun obviously fares worse but she actually does not have many lines in the first place.

Talking about Kim Go-Eun, I think she is somewhat miscast in this movie. Kim Go-Eun is a rather hot “up and coming” Korean movie actress who I last saw in “Coin Locker Girl” (2015). You may have also seen her in “Monster” (2013) which was a big hit. As an actress, I am not sure about her versatility. One thing she is good at is being miserable. Her whole resume is dripping with misery. She was pretty good in “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) which was soaked in misery. 

She can do misery well, very well!

However, I have not seen an actress look so awkward trying to pull off cheerful and innocent before. Usually that is that is one of the easier emotions to portray. The saving grace of her being cast in “Memories of the Sword” (2015) is that things get bad fast and get worse as times go by.

If “Memories of the Sword” is not Kim Go-Eun’s character’s story, whose is it?

Once the movie gives up treating the girl as the protagonist, she is actually absent for most of the middle of the movie until the latter parts when she comes back for the climax. Considering that the character has no comrades or real agency, there is actually no need for her in the story. It is not good writing but writing oneself into a corner happens.

Now, you are just left with the two adults: The man in black and the blind lady. At this point, it would be easy to say that the blind lady is the protagonist. However, if you watch the movie in detail, the movie is the man in black’s story. In other words, Lee Byung-Hun’s character is an anti-hero.

A Villain’s tale?
Starting in the middle of the movie, the focus shifts towards the villain or anti-hero. We see his journey from poor uneducated meat-head muscle to basically becoming Darth Vader without an Emperor to hold his leash. In the present, we see him scheme to rise to the top of the ladder he started to climb that fateful day in his past. He is determined to not be hindered by the blasts from the past but he still has lingering emotional connections with Jeon Do-Yeon’s character. She was the educated and graceful woman who uplifted this low status man through love and affection.

And she shagged him which is also a plus!

For all intense and purposes, the villain is a complex and very interesting powerful character played deftly by Lee Byung-Hun. I would even say that this is his best role of recent memory.

Getting old I think as his more older works are fuzzy in my memory.
But I never was much of a fan…

If Lee Byung-Hun’s character is the anti-hero, what does this make Jeon Do-Yeon’s character? In this upside down story, story wise, she is the antagonist. She is the one who is the cause of all the events in the present. She is the one who is not only physically blind but also blinded by irrational obsession and guilt. She is the one who uses people and discards them.

Warped but also interesting in concept.
Very difficult to execute.

In execution, this is rather muddled by the heavy sense of melodrama permeating the movie. The movies misses nailing many of story beats requires to pull it off. As a result, Jeon Do-Yeon’s character comes off oddly petty and somewhat secretly insane.

A Tale of Ambitions?
Now let’s talk about character motivations. What is the villain’s motivations? It is the ambition of a man who was once so suffocated by his social status that he never even had the inkling that ambitions were even an option for him.  Once this possibility was revealed to him, he never really looked back with the objective of seeing how far he could go.

Rise and fall stories are common place in movies. We have been telling stories of the dangers of uncontrolled ambition far longer than the existence of the movie medium. Thus, there is a lot of ways to approach this story. This movie’s approach is rather interesting but puzzling at the same time as the fall doesn’t really happen because of the character’s ambitions. It was his lingering emotional attachments that does him in at the end. This outcome rather muddles the point of the movie. To be frank, I do not think that the people behind the camera even knew the point of their movie other than making it a tragic melodrama.

Some of the blame can be put on Korean society’s rather conflicting attitudes towards ambition. Koreans tend to be really jealous of the ambitions of those above us. We also despise the ambitions of those who we see as socially inferior. However, our personal ambitions are all good. It is a very self-centered view of ambition which makes trying to tell a “rise and fall” story without sounding petty very difficult.

Private Vs. The Public
In my opinion, the story ends up boiling down to the argument between "Private" Vengeance and "Public Justice" even though the movie fails to understand this. Euripides discussed this subject in his plays put on in ancient Grease. Even Hong Kong historical movies talked about it with movies such as “Hero” (2002). But, this is not a popular topic floating around in Korean cultural psyche as we tend to confuse the two. To be frank, we just think the private is public in many ways. What is more disappointing is that we are not even aware we are doing it which cast doubts on the overall self-aware levels of Korean society as a whole.

“Memories of the Sword” (2015) is basically telling the story of "Private" Vengeance on the part of the blind woman. Just going on what the movie shows us, Lee Byung-Hun’s character is not particularity worse than his competition as the movie does a thorough job at portraying them in a negative light. In many ways, seeing that Lee Byung-Hun’s character is far more competent than his competition, having him rise to the top over the people who were just born into power could be considered a public good in the terms of meritocracy. At the minimum, the movie does not show that things would get worse if Lee Byung-Hun’s character does rise to the top.

He is not “Hitler” after all.
He is not even Darth Vader in this vein.

The blind woman never for once considers this. The sole reason for all that happens in this movie is purely personal even though she tries to coat it in loftier speak which not even her mentor believes. She is not concerned with the result of her actions on the public which shouldn’t come as a surprise since she is not really that concerned about what will happen to the people close to her.

The blind woman is also a coward at the same time. While the movie tries to coat it is rosy romantic light, at the end of the day, she is just too afraid of doing the deed herself on the part of her emotional attachments. She has to have a kid do her dirty work for her.

It seems that the “personal” tenda to mingle with emotions of self-indulgence, cowards, selfishness. She just needs to satisfy her personal … vengeance? It is even difficult to say vengeance as her motivations seems to be a muddled mixture of resentment, self-hate, affection, shame, obligation and a like. Or it may be that the movie is terrible at drilling down to what it wants to say.

At the End…
“Memories of the Sword” (2015) is not a terrible movie. It is not even a bad movie. While the first part of the movie is just awkward, once the movie passes its first hour mark, it becomes actually far better primarily because of the performance of both Lee Byung-Hun and Jeon Do-Yeon. They are great separately but they are spectacular together. Or is it the opposite?

Getting confused now!
Need to wrap things up.

It was a mistake trying to make the story about Kim Go-Eun’s character as it is the couple’s story at its core. Kim Go-Eun’s character is just a not so good story device.

“Memories of the Sword” (2015) is a movie that could have been far better than what it ended up being as there are very interesting elements to the story that could have been developed. However, the movie either fails to development or even understand they are there. This is all so sad but not unique with Korean movies which is more tragic than the conclusion of this movie.

I will give “Memories of the Sword” (2015) is a C grade as it falls firmly in the middle of “Has serious problems but good enough to see once” category of movies.
Score: C or 4.5/10

This was Prof. AKIA with a review of “Memories of the Sword” (2015). Next time I’ll be back with “Beauty inside” (2015). It is my other belated review which I need to get out of my head before I watch another Korean movie. Please follow me on Facebook, twitter and such. Comment bellow. You can do it as a guest. And try out one of my raffles going on!

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