Like his 2005 Korean B.O. smash “The King and the Clown,” Lee Joon-ik’s action-packed historical epic “Blades of Blood” boasts some masterfully kinetic swordplay, iconic perfs and sweeping panoramas. But this tale of political infighting on the eve of a Japanese invasion is told with unnecessarily broad, imagistic strokes that let character-generated conflicts slip between the blades, mitigating their impact. As pure spectacle, though, the film easily outdoes numerous gimmicky f/x extravaganzas, explaining its early pickup by several European and Asian distribs. Pic has played scattered American venues since June.
Based on a popular Korean manga set during the late 16th century, pic offers a concise snapshot of a political impasse: With Japanese forces gathered nearly at the gates, the royal court is paralyzed by indecision, deadlocked between the warring East and West Chambers (the factions conveniently color-coded in blue and purple, respectively). The partisanship is so self-destructively extreme that if the East says the Japanese are coming, the West denies it on principle. A popular movement, dubbed the “Grand Alliance” — whose ranks include idiosyncratic, Zatoichi-like blind swordsman Hwang (Hwang Jung-min) and ambitious, unaffiliated politician Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) — emerges instead to combat the foreign invaders.
But the alliance itself soon turns divisive, as a disagreement arises over how to handle the ruling parties, who view the new organization as traitorous. Mong-hak decides the powers that be pose a greater threat to his continued survival than the Japanese do, and exterminates his perceived enemies in a series of pre-emptive strikes, beginning with anyone within the alliance who disagrees with him.
An oddball entourage congregates in Mong-hak’s destructive wake, led by Hwang, who is determined to stop his former friend. Mong-hak’s beautiful, abandoned concubine, Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), trails behind, intent on joining her lover. Hwang himself is accompanied by Kyun-ja (Baek Sung-hyun), the illegitimate son of a murdered nobleman and one of Mong-hak’s intended victims.
The exchanges between the blind swordsman and his impatient young charge, Kyun-ja, furnish the comic relief, as the antic Hwang totters from one whorehouse to another, greeted with delight despite his tattered garb and uncomely visage. In between errands and seeing-eye duty, Kyun-ja is tutored in swordsmanship, his lessons enlivened by Hwang’s blows, admonishments and giggles.
In contrast, Mong-hak’s swath of destruction exudes a lethal beauty, whether in silent night raids where silhouetted figures cross a bridge to deal death by firelight, or a daylight melee where Mong-hak foils an elaborate government ambush, in one of the pic’s most dynamic setpieces.
Unfortunately, helmer Lee leaves all the moral tension offscreen, as Mong-hak’s evolution from patriotism to cold ambition largely transpires in the pic’s unseen backstory. The ironies of Mong-hak’s choices, starkly laid out as he gains the royal courtyard just as the Japanese forces attack, are lessened by the fact that those choices had already been made before the film started — a bit like beginning “Macbeth” with Duncan’s murder. Even Mong-hak’s climactic showdown with Hwang becomes more of a contrast in styles than a significant historical event or emotional turning point.