When I came upon Sword and Flower and how it dealt with the fall of Goguryeo, I couldn’t resist watching it. With my expectations dead-set on political intrigue, espionage and betrayal, my friend and I wasted no time jumping into this series.
Unfortunately, we were hit with disappointment on multiple fronts of this drama starting with the performance and lack of character depth from the leads. With its vapid acting and storytelling execution, it was hard to be engaged for 20 episodes. While I could see they were trying to create a certain level of serious and stoic characters—namely Yeon Gaesomun, a controversial military dictator who was the first Dae Mangniji. However, the execution of the stoicism among these characters made it impossible for me to care or empathize with them and their circumstances.
The cinematic output was extremely clumsy at times, especially in the first episode which is lifeless, poorly paced, and overall feels like I was watching a live action YouTube AMV from the early 2000’s with its lack of dialogue. The way the episode played out gave next to no solid set up or context for the circumstances that would follow and more importantly no motivation for me to remain, or even become, invested.
Going back to cinematography, there were some shots and color choices in the post-production editing that created a beautifully surreal atmosphere. It was this little element that had given me some hope that it would pick up over time, as some Kdramas tend to be slow at gaining your attention in the beginning.
Alas, the show did pick up halfway through when Yeon Namsaeng (played by No Min-woo) was introduced into the story. Yeon Namsaeng’s sensual and psychotic character was the only figure in the show whose performance actively engaged me. While the rest of the show and story had all but became background noise, I looked forward to seeing No Min-woo’s performance and ended up ultimately sympathizing with his character’s ambitions rather than the protagonists for which the story was trying to get the viewers to care.
With Yeon Namsaeng’s historical background painted as a betrayed military leader, it only added to my empathy for the character. I must give some props to the writer of this series for taking a slight twist to his story arc. Instead of following what’s written in history, the writer depicted him as a betrayer who ultimately claimed power. No Min Woo’s performance as Yeon Namsaeng was chilling and lively. His Cheshire-esque smile paired with his intense feral gaze, breathed life into the otherwise vapid series and made up for it in some ways.
Another surprising element the show took was its lack of a love triangle. With Yeon Namsaeng’s interest in the princess’s (aka Moo-young, played by Kim Ok-bin) gender-bent disguise, I was certain they were going to implement the seemingly mandatory Kdrama love-triangle; an element I find overused and a bit “rinse, wash and repeat” in the sageuks I’ve seen. I was overjoyed when I learned that they didn’t utilize this in Yeon Namsaeng’s character, and kept him as the ruthless psychopath he was.
Overall, with Sword and Flower’s disappointing ending, I marked this show off as among the lack-luster bunch I’ve seen in 2017. While the characters and story were neither good nor bad, so much as not empathetic and poorly paced, it was the slow start, lack of context for future events, and sometimes severe underacting that left me disheartened. The 20-episode series was saved only by a dynamic character, portrayed by a talented actor, and a few stylistic choices made in post-production.
As a lover of Kdramas, and even more specifically historical Kdramas, Sword and Flower for me is only a slight misstep in a mountain of well-acted and well-written series.