Director: Jo Bareun
Actors: Ahn Ji-hye, Lee Min Ji, Park Tae San, Jung Jin-woo, Lee Se-ho, Nam I-seul, Jo Sun-ki
Duration: 100 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
It could be argued that the fencing film has never really gone out of style in Asian cinema, with each decade leading to a reinvention of the genre in one way or another. Whether it’s from Patrick Tam The sword in the 80s, by Tsui Hark The blade in the 90s, by Ang Lee Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in the 2000s, or by Keishi Otomo Rurouni Kenshin series in the 2010s. Korea has also gotten in on the action over the years, with the likes of 2005 Sword Without Shadows2010s Blades of bloodand most recently, 2020 The swordsman being superior examples of the genre. While the quality of the country’s independent action productions ranges from entertainment (Geochilmaru: The showdown) to say (Master Heaven: The greatest fighter), the gamble that takes 90 minutes of your life when you watch movies like this is a gamble I still find myself willing to take.
Which brings me to 2021 Slatea 2na starring vehicle for gymnast-turned-actress Ahn Ji-hye (Wolf Hunt Project) following her dramatic, physically demanding turn in 2019 Our body. After being taken into care as a child by her alcoholic father who deemed her unfit to be a parent, 20 years later Ji-hye’s character is approaching 30 as she struggles to make ends meet as an aspiring film actress. ‘action. Though stunt double roles are readily available, Ji-hye insists on being the heroine of any production she’s cast in, so much so that she slips her CV down a lavatory where a director of an upcoming action film he is conducting his business. With her sales pitch spinning around the classic “you don’t need stunt doubles!” Trope that helped bring the likes of Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa to international stardom, the director eventually invites Ji-hye to be a part of the production.
While so far Slate may sound like an interesting take on an action that actresses fight for roles that showcase their talents (and indeed the title “list” refers to a film clapper), director Jo Bareun has other ideas. His second feature film production after the same action theme of 2020 BAND, here Bareun creates a whimsical story that sees Ji-hye transported to a parallel universe, thanks to the film set located in the so-called “Korean Bermuda Triangle”. Anyone expecting some kind of Everything everywhere all at once affected by the multiverse adventure, however, should keep their expectations in check. The parallel universe here looks and feels like exactly the same movie set it left behind (because it is), and the apparent resemblance to the real world results in some head-scratching at first.
With the parallel universe explained as one where “the ages are all mixed up”, the fact that most of its inhabitants walk around in jeans, hoodies and tracksuits led me to assume that it was populated by various other film crews who had mysteriously been transported to this alternate reality over the years. That’s not the case, and apart from Ji-hye the only other person in his reality is a YouTuber who disappeared 3 months ago, played by Jung Jin-woo (Paid in blood, Pipeline). Sporting a look clearly inspired by Shin Ha-kyun in Save the green planet (think accessorized helmet and raincoat), it’s Jin-woo who explains where they are, and it soon becomes clear that the reason most of the cast are seemingly decked out in their wardrobes is likely due to budgetary constraints.
Being able to push past these admittedly distracting budget constraints is key to enjoying what Slate has to offer, and thankfully the further the narrative progresses, the more compelling the story becomes. The key to the entertainment factor is that the parallel universe is essentially a riff on the period action Ji-hye was meant to be a part of, providing her with the elusive lead role she’s always sought. Waking up in her yellow hoodie and still brandishing the set’s prop sword, she is immediately identified by the enthusiastic village chief as a Soul Slayer, a traveling warrior destined to save the city from an evil force that threatens their village.
The forces of evil in question are introduced via on-screen text, with interesting names like Rattle Snake, The Priest, Bandit King, and Philip (okay, pretty much everyone). Notably, all of the cast are familiar faces within the Korean indie action scene, with the likes of Lee Se-ho (Legendary fighter, Sirasoni: God of struggle) and Park Tae-san (Bodyguard, Black Rain: Chronicles of Evil) bringing a pedigree of cinematic combat talent to the proceedings. Special mention should also go to Nam I-seul, here in his screen debut, as the dagger wielding Rattle Snake who proves to be a worthy match for Ji-hye. His appearance may be brief (and include speaking English for no apparent reason), but he makes an impression. The action itself is handled by Sim Sang-yong, whose work can be seen in the likes of Carter AND The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasurewith the cast trained in on-screen combat for 2 months before the actual filming.
Just like the storytelling, the quality of the action also gets better and better Slate progresses. The opening fights are poorly filmed though competently executed, with one scene giving me the second time I’ve ever watched a movie in 2023 (the first was the laborious The legend of Gatotkaca) which features a character throwing a filmed kick from the waist up. Thankfully at one point it seems that director Bareun has handed full control of filming the action scenes to the action department, which results in most of the latter fights being captured much more consistently. Swordplay is commonplace, and while budget constraints mean the action doesn’t reach the same level as the Rurouni Kenshin series, what’s there is solid and fast-paced, delivering the expected action paces in a fun way.
The arrival of the real Soul Slayer of parallel worlds, bizarrely played by Jo Sun-ki (Special crime solving team, Ice god), offers a humorous counterpoint to Ji-hye’s fish-out-of-water demeanor, meandering broodingly complete with a mythical stuffed animal perched on his shoulder. The pair eventually team up to take on a life-draining villain named Taepyeongso, leading to an ending that mostly aims to differentiate itself from the rest of the action by introducing a supernatural element. On screen it means little more than the swords being given an aura-like energy, yet at least we know where the money saved by the production to make the cast wear their own clothes went.
Outside of the core storytelling, it’s clear that attention to plot-level detail wasn’t the priority, with anyone looking for anything other than a modest slice of sword-ringing swordplay likely to be disappointed. There are many plot holes, for example Ji-hye spends several days in the parallel world, however when she returns it appears that she has only been gone for a few hours, implying that time has sped up. However, the eagle-eyed audience may note that this should mean that the YouTuber who has been missing for 3 months will have aged considerably and not look quite the way he did when he disappeared like he did. Likewise, numerous plot threads have been introduced that simply go nowhere, such as a previous relationship of the villagers with a villain, resulting in some missed opportunities to flesh out the parallel world and the characters who inhabit it.
Considering the ambitious nature of Slate and the budget it had to work with, though, these are minor gripes. Ji-hye performs well in the lead, and the energetic production means the pace rarely slows down, with an action scene always around the corner. If you ever find yourself thinking what it would do The ultimate action hero be like, instead of a 10-year-old boy idolizing Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s a sword-wielding Korean actress, then Slate it might just be the movie that provides the answer (and who hasn’t asked that question at some point in their life?).
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 6/10