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[Herald Review] ‘Iron Mask,’ a rare kendo film filled with wordless yet powerful scenes

Nov. 4, 2023 - 16:01 By Kim Da-sol
“Iron Mask” (The Coup Distribution)

“Iron Mask,” which has the Korean title of “One-Ten-Thousandth of a Second,” follows the story of Kim Jae-woo (Joo Jong-hyuk), who joins the boot camp to be selected for the national kendo team.

The film centers around Kim's encounter with Tae-su (Moon Jin-seung), who killed Jae-woo's older brother when he was young.

The movie’s Korean title is intended to show how the competition’s victory is decided within a very short amount of time. Throughout the film's 100-minute running time, this message is particularly evident.

Jae-woo comes in second place in the competition, failing to block his rival's attack within the key millisecond. What may contribute to Jae-woo's losses is his inner struggle as he faces Tae-su, who appears invincible in the competition. Yet he appears blind to Jae-woo, as if he knows nothing about Jae-woo's relationship with his victim.

What makes the detailed emotional buildup immersive is the characters’ environment in a kendo training center. The dialogue is limited, and the film focuses more on kendo competition scenes, close-ups of kendo mask-put-faces, shouts of concentration, the sound of kendo swords colliding, and the color contrast of dark navy and white kendo uniforms and the dull wooden floor.

A mix of feelings like anger, thoughts of revenge, resentment, a sense of inferiority is portrayed through Jae-woo’s handling of the kendo sword, which he often fumbles, unable to read his competition in a calm and collected manner.

The lack of lines compared to any other sports film is surprising. Once you lose your concentration, you may struggle to follow the plot. Jae-woo’s buildup of emotions does reach its crescendo until the very end, which may make the film seem dull to some viewers.

“I heard that this film only contains some 800 lines, compared to 2,000 lines that an average film has. I started out this film with storytelling instead of listing lines through characters. I wanted to show the turbulent emotional development through kendo games,” said director Kim Sung-hwan after the press screening held in Yongsan-gu, Seoul on Tuesday.

He added that he learned to tell the story through visualizing rather than using words in the early stages of his career.

“When I learned to make films at school, I was given an assignment to prepare to make a film without using lines, almost like a silent movie,” he added.

“Iron Mask” won two prizes at the 27th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. The movie opens in local theaters on Nov. 15.