However, we decided to go to a film last weekend because it was Mrs. Jiwaku’s birthday, and since the film both looked interesting, and had sold fewer tickets than the other films showing, we decided to give it a shot. In our experience, there’s an uncanny-valley-like effect in Korean cinema: the bell-curve applies on most axes in determining how well a film does. Too bad or too good, or too smart or too stupid, too fast or too slow, to creative or too uncreative, all of these things hurt a film’s success. Yes, a film can be too good to succeed in Korea. Or too smart, or too beautiful, or too well-written. I’ve seen it happen many times, and wondered whether this particular film was flunking because it was too good, or too bad.
Unfortunately, after seeing 협녀: 칼의 기억, I can say pretty definitely it was the latter: it’s really just an unfortunate mess, one of those films where you watch it thinking, oh, there’s another lost opportunity every few minutes. Which I suppose should be no surprise, since it’s one of those films that got stuck on the way out to release for years on end, as I found out after we got home from the cinema. Yeah, it shows. Sometimes, creative friction creates energy: here, it worked more like sandpaper, wearing down all the film’s sharp, distinctive edges.
I’ll take a few moments and see if I can talk about both the good and the bad of this film.
The film isn’t set in the Joseon Dynasty! Hooray! More! Please! I’m tired of late-Joseon palace narratives, and you should be too. Korean history has so much more to offer… and more that is directly of use in a rapidly changing society. As far as I’m concerned, the more films like that we get, the better. Last year’s Pirates1—which, yeah, was an overt attempt to rip off of the whole Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—was also set so early in the Joseon Era, that all the characters had actually grown up in the Koryo (and many were critical of the new dynasty). More! More!
Like Pirates, another positive of Memories of the Sword was its strong focus on powerful, skilled female warriors. In Memories, there are two of them, and both are impressive swordswomen, able to hold their own against fellow wuxia-god male counterparts and rapidly vanquish large numbers of normal (non-super-wuxia-type) warriors of either sex.
The film also does a rare thing for Korean cinema: it includes a foreign character who is neither mere window dressing, nor a villain, nor a clown whose humiliation elevates a Korean male, nor a token “good” foreigner. Memories not only shows the presence of Middle-Eastern traders in Koryo, but also includes one of them as a minor character, uninvolved in the major events, but who is a friend of several characters. (They even speak to him in Arabic on a couple of occasions, and he is shown to comprehend Korean when it is spoken to him; I can’t remember if he speaks it himself, though.)
Finally, it’s one of the first films I’ve seen where a major character’s blindness was portrayed convincingly by a non-blind actor. (And she’s not crippled and housebound by her condition, either.)
But you’ll notice that the positives I’ve listed are all, in a sense, “political”: they’re all concerned with abstract issues like race and gender politics, and historiography, and refusal to engage in ableism. In other words, the good things about the film are not connected with the experience of a film as an artwork, a narrative, or a piece of entertainment.
The bad news is that as art, narrative, or entertainment, the film overall is disappointing. Watching it felt kind of like an educational exercise in spotting lost opportunities and narrative problems. You feel like if you watch closely enough, you could even perhaps diagnose what problem in scripting, production, post-production, or editorial feedback led to what visible flaw onscreen. That’s probably unfair: a great script can be mauled, a bad film aided immensely by astute editing, and funding problems can strike even the best outfit. But it still says a lot about how apparent the film’s flaws really are. This is not a case of, “The film doesn’t quite work, but I’m not sure why.” You know why, at least if you know anything about films… which of course leads to the suspicion that it’s less the director’s fault than something forced onto him, even though I’m not familiar with his previous work.
Said lost opportunities are all over the place:
The plot is broken, and since plot and character are inextricable, the character development suffers seriously as a result. The film seems to have forgotten that its purpose is to tell us a story. Subplots and counterplots are fine, but this film basically can’t decide who the story is about—or, rather, which tragic relationship it’s about. It flirts with being about one relationship after another, but never finally lands on anything substantial enough for us to care about it. The story is fairly confusing, too much is left out, and then on top of it, there are weird jumps back and forth in time. Part of this is necessitated by the fact the screenwriters (I think) decided that the best way to build suspense is keeping secrets from the audience. It isn’t, though, as this film shows. What’s worse, the plot flits around so much that it commits the crime of introducing major characters and then barely using them. The character “Yool” (played by boy-band star Jun-Ho Lee) is pegged as a possible antagonist, possible ally, and possible love interest of young Sol-Hee, but he’s essentially irrelevant to the story, and one feels like his role is an inflated cameo predicated on the hope that fans of 2PM would come and see the movie to see him swinging around a sword while wearing a boyish smile.
Instead of getting sufficient backstory to situate us in the present, we get instead massive, deep injections of melodramatic “pathos”: namely, characters bawling their eyes out, weeping in abject sorrow, crying and crying and crying. That’s not to say we should never see a character cry in a film. It’s to say that one shouldn’t apply the fake tears with a trowel in the hope that it will substitute for a confusing plot and weak character development. While I get it that melodrama (and especially sorrow presented melodramatically) is massively popular in Korean media, the crying scenes in this film were repetitive, obtrustive, way too long, and unimaginatively shot. Sometimes, seeing someone break down at a distance—or fight to prevent themselves from breaking down, even—is much more powerful than seeing them weep their eyes out in a tight closeup shot. (Like, say, at the end of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother.)
Melodrama is never a substitute for character development or plot. And the plot of this movie feels like it was attacked by someone wielding a melon baller:
… and I can’t help but wonder if the cuts were made to fit in more crying and weeping and moaning and Sad Sadness. That’s exactly the kind of thing money people force directors to do, though who knows: maybe the director is a fan of cheese too.
There are also technical issues: the color correction choices made in post-production give the film a somewhat drab, greyish look (except in a few specific scenes that are wonderfully bright). This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except it kind of leaves all the non-grey colors looking murky and grungy, and the film is robbed of some of its vibrancy. I almost feel like this was a conscious attempt to distance the film from he very color-sensitive, sensually vibrant source material (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero) that it seems most closely to emulate.
There are also minor but distracting problems with the audio—and one scene where, unforgivably, a minor character’s speech neither lines up with his mouth, nor is corrected to sound like it’s coming from where it’s supposed to be coming from. (The kind of mistake one sees in student homework assignments, in other words.)
Even the makeup was iffy in places, on a level you’d expect in amateur filmmaking. In one scene in particular, Byeong-Hyun Lee looks like he’s sneering, until it soon becomes apparent—in a closeup on his face—that it’s actually just makeup failure, and his fake mustache was glued on crooked, higher on one side than on the other. Once I noticed that, I couldn’t help but stare and I missed what was going on in the scene. It’s the kind of thing that, in a functional project, simply necessitates a reshoot, or the scene to be recut to minimize the visibility of the gaffe. The fact it was left as is makes the project seem amateurish.
These technical issues all contribute to a feeling that the film was rushed in some sense. Of course, these days all films are relatively rushed, like any other massive creative project—it’s really hard to shoot all the content you need in the time allotted, and re-shoots are sometimes necessary, and everyone works like dogs for weeks on end. But usually, things ultimately work out better than this. I can’t help but feel like the budget ran out, or the director or actors ran out of steam (as directors and actors sometimes do), or the carpet got pulled out from under the project in post-production, or, well, who knows?
But it’s clear something went wrong… in fact, that multiple somethings went wrong. The long-delayed release suggests that the studio knew this too. Again, I can’t help but think that the director was pressured by the money people, though I’ve also heard that the main actors—unaccustomed to wire-work and martial arts action—found the shoot extremely difficult, and were disappointed with their acting too. Maybe part of it, then, is a casting problem: just because someone’s a good actor—and Jeon Do-Yeon clearly is one—doesn’t mean they’ll do well in every film. Imagine Christopher Walken trying to play the main role in Alfie (or Bruce Willis playing Hamlet), or Renée Zellweger trying to pull of Daenerys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones, and you’ll see what I mean.
Finally, though this is probably going to sound weird, I feel like the film was overtly trying to emulate films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero; those films have a kind of beautiful, gracile martial arts that borders on balletic dance, and obviously aspires to visual poetry.
But that’s Chinese stuff; it’s not Korean, and it doesn’t feel even remotely Korean. I don’t know what would feel more authentically Korean, but I can say that I shouldn’t be watching a Korean film and thinking to myself, “Huh, so all this is supposed to remind me of Hong Kong martial arts, right?” A distinctively Korean visual rhetoric of martial arts action is obviously possible… but that requires a director with vision, and willingness to hire (and give a degree of free rein to) Korean martial arts choreographers who are actually hip that idea.
Mrs. Jiwaku and I were talking about this, and she mentioned the moment in the recent South Korean espionage film Berlin where two characters are fighting and one of them uses a gun on the other—not as a firearm, but as a damned hammer he uses to smash the other’s skull in. That felt authentically Korean, somehow. It’s earthier, more gritty, and in that film it was more effective than any slick, stylish move from a James Bond or Hollywood action film could ever have been.
What’s most heartbreaking about this is that there are the makings of good film here. Probably what was needed ended up on the cutting room floor, wasn’t budgeted for, and was forced out in bad decisions made by people with too much money and not enough common sense. All of the main actors are good enough at their jobs to have done right by this story, but somehow one ends up with feathers instead of chickens, and that’s a damned shame.
The full Korean title actually translates as “Pirates: The Seagoing Hill Bandits”↩