What I like best about Korean epics set in the middle ages are the men's hats: wide-brimmed stovepipes made of black mesh that diffuses the shadow cast on the face; overturned, blue or earthen-colored bowls embellished with topknots and attached to the head with a strip of fabric secured in the back like a bandana; towering royal cones that look collapsible and slyly suggest the instability of any and every empire... Having been raised on the knit caps and baseball visors, the earmuffs and do rags of the late 20th century, these antiquated, grandly executed headpieces speak mysteriously, intriguingly of hidden meanings that have nothing to do with designer labels and sports franchises. Back then a hat had meaning! It defined your class, your rank, your identity in a way that today's tiaras and aviator hats do not. Talk about ridiculously aspirational. Well, Blades of Blood has hats aplenty. And aspirations too. And for that I thank director Lee Jun-ik (since I don't know the name of the costume designer). With this historic drama documenting eternal futility more than temporal reign, he's parading out a veritable fashion show of medieval formal- and sports- wear between and during the sword fights.
But clothes alone do not make a movie any more than they do a man. And at the center of Blades of Blood are actually two shabbily attired men: One, a blind samurai wearing a patched-up version of the stovepipe mentioned above; the other, his bare-headed apprentice with a robe as bland as a navy sportscoat. They're both hell-bent on revenging the man who killed Pil-joo (Lee Hae-yeong) -- friend of the former, father of the latter. And they have to trek by hundreds of people infinitely better attired to do so. It's a classic tale with the two men acting out a Star Wars-like mentorship as the elder -- a blind fool named Hwang (Hwang Jeong-min) -- teaches the younger -- a hot-tempered bastard named Gyeon-ja (Baek Seong-hyeon) -- the finer points of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat with plenty of head clobberings as reprimand. If the Foley soundtrack is to be believed, those hits to the head sure hurt! And it's not the only form of pain suffered throughout Blades of Blood. (it may be the only pains that continuously cause a laugh though.) For serious injury early on, Gyeon-ja gets stabbed right through the abdomen by his nemesis Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) and is given up as dead (as if that's the way movies ever worked). That hurt! And many of Lee's cohorts end up seeing the end of Lee's sword come out their other side, without coming back to life. As to other aches, there's Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), lover to both Mong-hak and Gyeon-ja. That's gotta hurt for both men. How the love triangle happens is one of life's great coincidences. How it resolves itself is one of the film's greatest achievements. The whole thing's not quite as magical as Lee's masterpiece The King and the Clown but it's still an entertaining romp in the past. I say, hats off to them all!