An archetypal tale of love, betrayal and revenge among swordplayers of South Korea’s Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), “Memories of the Sword” is a visually arresting but vacuous, instantly forgettable period martial-arts romance. Helmer Park Heung-sik aspires to the vibrant color schemes and multiple twists of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” but his underdeveloped screenplay (co-penned with Choi A-reum) and overwrought narrative makes for plodding viewing, squandering the clout of its A-list stars Jeon Do-yeon (“Secret Sunshine”) and Lee Byung-hun (“I Saw the Devil”). The pic took a beating at the domestic B.O. but will have a good stab at overseas ancillary following its U.S. bow.
The Korean title “Hyubnyeo: Kal ui ki-eok,” which roughly translates as “Martial Arts Heroine: Memories of the Sword,” alludes to King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen” (“hyubnyeo” being the Korean Hanja pronunciation of “Xia Nu,” the Chinese title of Hu’s classic about a female swordswoman with a righteous vendetta). However, Park’s story is too much of a potboiler to achieve Hu’s philosophical depth, and the director’s style is more reminiscent of Lee Myung-se’s “Dualist” in its visual extravagance and incoherent, quasi-surreal narrative.
The yarn circles around three martial artists, each caught in his or her own anguished predicament. Innocent teenager Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) has been raised by her blind adopted mother Seol-rang (Jeon) with the sole mission of avenging her parents’ deaths. Seol-rang once belonged to a band of warriors dedicated to overthrowing the corrupt monarchy. During one uprising, the rebels captured Jon-bak (Kim Tae-woo), the son of an evil magistrate (Moon Sung-geun) and stormed the city gates. However, they were double-crossed by Seol-rang’s lover, Deok-ki (Lee), who killed his sworn brother Poong-chun (Bae Soo-bin) and his wife. Were it not for Seol-rang, the traitor would have finished off Poong-chun’s infant daughter, Hong-yi too, and the girl still bears the scar of a gash made by his sword.
Eighteen years later, Deok-ki has risen in court to become the King’s most favored man; yet he misses Seol-rang, whom he still loves. Nevertheless, when he accidentally spots Hong-yi displaying the same sword techniques as Seol-rang at a public sparring contest against his protege Yool (Lee Jun-ho, from the boy band 2PM), he doesn’t hesitate to snuff out any threat to his status by whatever ruthless means necessary.
The three protags’ relationships — bound by strict martial-arts codes of honor and justice, yet thwarted by passion or ambition — are typical of the genre. However, able performances aside, the emotional turmoil of Deok-ki and Seol-rang meeting again, or Hong-yi’s faltering assumption of her avenging role, are lost in the overwrought structure of mulitiple flashbacks, replayed scenes and contrived coincidences. Even a twist that should intensify the trio’s love-hate conflicts culminates in a ending so lurid and overblown it’s almost comical. The budding attraction between Hong-yi and Yool would also have added some light-heartedness to the somber tone, but that, too, fizzles out after two mildly steamy scenes.
While it’s almost impossible for Jeon to disappoint in any film, her imitation of blindness is not convincing as she alternates between fumbling around helplessly and slicing her opponents like carrots. Lee, on the other hand, rises above the banality of the story to deliver a layered turn that makes Deok-ki’s love for Seol-rang feel genuine, despite his duplicitous behavior in all other respects. Deok-ki’s power struggle with Jon-bak, culminating in a grisly scene, is limned by Lee with cool, blood-curdling sadism. With her peachy complexion and pageboy looks, Kim has become the “it” girl of the Korean film industry since her bold performances in the Lolita drama “Eun-gyo” and mother-complex gangster pic “Coin Locker Girl.” Here, she again remains undaunted in the presence of superstars, demonstrating impressive range in action, light comedy and heavy melodrama.
There’s no question that the ravishing widescreen images by veteran lenser Kim Byung-seo (“Cold Eyes,” “Castaway on the Moon”) and the exquisite sets by production designer Han A-rum represent the pic’s biggest selling points. Even so, the exaggerated artifice of the seasonal tableaux of sunflower patches, dandelion fields, rainswept pavillions and snow-covered grounds situate them in a graphic dimension of their own, isolated from the main plot. And for all the meticulous re-creations of period architecture, from Deok-ki’s magnificent estate to Seol-rang’s Arab-influenced salon, there’s too much dawdling on decorative details, especially scenes devoted to brewing and sipping tea.
Action setpieces, though exceedingly lavish, are a throwback to ’90s Hong Kong wire stunts. The swordplay is sometimes fanciful and eye-catching, as when Hong-yi gets training from Seol-rang’s master (Lee Kyoung-young), but group combat sequences are downright sloppy. Overall, the action choreography fails to draw a line between period authenticity and pure fantasy, so characters levitate into the clouds as if endowed with magical powers one moment, then become vulnerably mortal in the next. The profusion of slow-motion and freeze-frame will give some viewers a headache. Other tech credits are uniformly first-rate.