Review: Blades of Blood

“You’re taking sides in the middle of a revolt!?”

So new is Blades of Blood that in trying seek out some details so I could better understand the political conflicts taking place in the story’s background, I found almost no reference to the film on any of my regular sites.  When IMDB doesn’t even have you listed, you’re either a hallucination or very new.

The film is ostensibly about the invasion of 16th century Korea by the Japanese, and the re-aligning of the internal government into a “grand alliance” created by blind acupuncturist Hwang and steely warrior Lee.  The East and West cabinets can barely meet, let alone agree on the slightest of issues, and when Lee announces solemnly that he is “neither East nor West”, someone should have noticed he was taking down everyone’s addresses, because the next time they see Lee, it doesn’t go so well.

Hwang understands not only what Lee’s intentions are, but how they’ll likely play out for the swordsman.  In Lee’s path are many victims, including the father of Han, a young bastard who is taunted and beaten by his blood relatives, while lacking the training and long-term focus of seasoned men like Hwang and Lee.  So when Hwang gives Han the opportunity to travel with him, locate Lee, and attempt to stop his efforts, Han gets some fast-tracked training for sword and defense, as well as more than a few words of wisdom.  He also has a crisis of conscience when it comes to Lee’s former woman, a prostitute named…huh?

Yes, in Blades of Blood, a lot of things are unclear to the uninitiated.  Perhaps the Korean-speaking audience will take away more of the film’s intricacies, but for this reviewer, you are thrown into a political scramble that only becomes clearer very late in the film.  Things move quickly and if you glance away from the subtitles for a moment, you might miss some critical posturing by the cast.

But if there is a single reason to see the film, it is the performance of Hwang Jung-Min as Hwang.  At first glance Hwang appears as something of a side character, a supporting role that could equate to a Greek chorus, taunting Lee about his trajectory in the opening scene.  But he quickly takes one of the lead roles, and it is a very gratifying turn by the actor.

Hwang is jovial, clever, wise and a fierce fighter, despite being blind.  And he knows that a good trade like acupuncture can bring “food, drink and sex”, so why not spend your spare hours taking care of a gaggle of prostitutes?  Hwang comes across as every mentor you’ve seen on film, yet he is far more cunning and aware.  Even when the politics start to drag, Hwang can be relied upon to entertain in a big way.  It’s a terrific performance.

And when the film comes to its conclusion, there’s a lot of heavy lifting.  A lot of crying, a lot of bloodshed.  And yet, even with some thrilling sword-fight choreography, the film maintains a very emotional balance.  With the Japanese and their nifty new rifles coming onto the scene in the very end, we know that it will likely not go so well for most of these characters, but following them through to the end can be very rewarding.

Blade of Blood is playing as a limited engagement at the AMC Grapevine Mills.

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