Visiting & Revisiting series, and The Cinema 4 Pylon blog) was up in the LA area for the day, we took a quick trip into Chinatown. It was ostensibly just a little bit of sightseeing as we killed time before a movie we were going to see that night, but not-so-secretly I was hoping to stumble across one of those video stores that specializes in cheap DVDs of Asian films not available in the American market. As luck would have it, we stumbled across a couple such stores, and I was able to pick up a couple titles I had been looking for, and a couple of Christmas gifts as well. At the urging of the second store's proprietress, who insisted it was one of the best films on the shelves, and in order to meet the 'buy 4 get one free' offer, I picked up today's film, Saulabi, a 2002 South Korean action romance set in feudal Japan. This information is being relayed as a form of full disclosure, because the DVD I bought had only Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks, and subtitles that were burned onto the image and read both Chinese and badly translated English at the same time. It is possible that this was not the most ideal manner in which to judge this film's merits.
Around the turn of this century, South Korean filmmaking seemed to go through a sort of renaiscance, with dozens of slickly produced blockbusters hitting theatres while at the same time a new wave of young, rule-breaking filmmakers came along. Saulabi was released in 2002, and seems to have missed that rising tide of quality Korean films. Saulabi (a Korean word that roughly translates as 'he who fights') is basically a classic Greek tragedy filtered through a Samurai film, with a layer of historical Korean references that probably went over my head a lot of the time. The plot was easy enough to follow once it got going, but I'm certain there were intricacies I missed due to mistranslation, or simply owing to my ignorance of the time period. To break it down into its basics; A band of warriors travels from Korea to Japan to repair the broken Heaven's Sword and return their nation to glory. Years later, one of these warriors meets a Japanese lord and begins to work for him, while also falling in love with the lord's daughter, who is engaged to be married to the lord's master. As you can see, it's a pretty simple love triangle set within the type of honor-filled, somewhat bureaucratic minefield that a lot of Japanese tragedies take place in (I'm thinking specifically of Chushingura, in which the entire sad affair is begun because a feudal lord didn't have enough tatami mats when a visiting official arrived).
The plot of the film is solid enough for this type of thing, but let's be honest, most of the appeal lies in the fight choreography, and on that front, Saulabi is a big disappointment. For the first hour there are only two brief fight scenes, one of which I'm not sure related to the rest of the story at all (again, not the best subtitles). The swordplay is of the old school Kendo variety common in most samurai films, although it never looks or feels natural. I've been able to find very little information about this film online, but an editorial review on Letterboxd.com makes the claim that fight choreography was done by frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator Eizi Takakura. The problem is, I can find no such name listed anywhere, let alone on an Akira Kurosawa film. IMDb doesn't list most of the crew, but I have trouble believing that anyone who worked with the great Akira Kurosawa had anything to do with this film's fight scenes. I saw a documentary a few years ago about LARPers who made their own PVC weapons and engaged in fake combat on the weekends, and the fighting in that film looked more realistic. In fact, on almost every front Saulabi feels like very little effort went into it. At one point the lord's retinue is travelling through a small Japanese village, which looks authentically like the time period it's supposed to be set in, but the director makes no effort to hide the very modern houses and buildings that are visible just behind this set. It also doesn't help that the lead, Sang Hyun-lee, wears a series of incredibly unconvincing fake beards, and acts with a sort of eternal poutiness.
I don't want to be completely negative about the film, but I must warn you that it's just not very good. It does, however, pick up steam during its final half hour, which appears to span a few months but, at the end, is suddenly revealed to have spanned about 20 years. I'm not saying the acting, directing, or fighting suddenly improve, I'm just saying the amount of incident on screen starts to pile up and it gets comparably much more fun to watch, culminating in an ending so tragic and sudden it inspires dismissive laughter more than the tears the filmmakers were obviously hoping for.
Final Rating: 2(out of 5)