King Yeongjo is sort of the Donald Trump of the Joseon era. Centuries later, Koreans still have misgivings regarding the way he ascended to the throne, but they generally agree he appointed good judges. It is not for Kim Ho to say. After months of scuffling, the former royal swordsman is enormously surprised when he is appointed a lowly guard at Joseon’s version of a maximum security Federal Pen. However, he will be the right man in the right place when conspirators come to break out the leading rebel against Yeongjo’s rule in Kim Hong-sun’s The Age of Blood (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Not only is Kim Ho working as a workaday screw, he is also now a junior to his disappointed uncle. He doesn’t really know how things work, so he brings a sword on his first day in uniform. Yes, he will be needing that later. When the when the forces led by the hardnosed Do Min-chul attack the rock to break out the fanatically self-righteous Lee In-jwa, they kill all witnesses in sight, guards and prisoners alike. Of course, they weren’t counting on Kim Ho.
At first, Age of Blood is sort of an anti-prison break film, like a Joseon Rio Bravo, but it evolves into a hard-galloping action movie, in the tradition of War of the Arrows. In fact, Yeongjo and his successor Jeongjo will be familiar to fans of Korean cinema from previous films like The Throne, Fatal Encounter, and Royal Tailor, which together paint a decidedly ambiguous picture of their legacies.
In fact, the intrigue is so far behind the scenes in Age of Blood, it is hard to form any hard and fast judgements. If anything, viewers might get the nagging feeling Kim Ho is fighting for a potential tyrant, but his loyalty is to the country and its laws, not to a single man. Regardless, the action is the thing here—and it gets messy. There is considerable hack-and-slash blood splattering going on here. No quarter is asked or given.
Jung Hae-in shows grit and action cred like we’ve never seen from his before, as Kim Ho. He looks totally credible slicing and parrying, while also projecting the appropriately world-weary man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do attitude. Hong Soo-a is also shows off some nice chops as Lady Yoo Seo-yeong, Kim Ho’s unexpected ally. Kim Ji-hoon’s Lee is arguably too cold-blood, but Jo Jae-yun is terrific as Do, the intense but honorable adversary.
If you want a sober assessment of Yeongjo’s administration, the Korea Society can probably recommend a good book. If you want swordplay, archery, martial arts, and general skullduggery, then Age of Blood should keep you fully entertained for nearly two full hours. Recommended for fans of period action films, The Age of Blood screens this Wednesday afternoon (the Fourth of July) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.