Wed 19 Jul 2006
I have to admit I was filled with reservation when I sat down to watch Shadowless Sword. Director Kim Young-jun’s previous film Bichunmoo is one of only a handful of films I’ve walked out of midway through. Internet buzz didn’t exactly bode well for his second Wuxia feature either with a generally luke warm reaction from critics as the film tanked at the Korean box office. It’s safe to say I had low expectations and I couldn’t even say for sure if I’d make it to the end of the movie before hitting the stop button. If Bichunmoo was anything to go by….
Set during the 10th century Balhae Dynasty and throwing up some major historical revisionism Shadowless Sword centers on heir to the Balhae kingdom Dae Jeong-Hyeon (Lee Seo-Jin). Forced into exile at a young age to hide his royal blood during these turbulent times he lives out his life as a humble under the counter trader in a remote village. That is until he finds himself gaining unwanted attention by his fellow Balhae and their rebellion rivals Khitan.
The Khitan are mounting a terror campaign to end the Balhae Dynasty by assassinating all those of noble blood thus ending the royal blood line. With no legitimate heir left the Khitan are free to inherit the kingdom as their own. Jeong-Hyeon is the last obstacle to the complete annexation of the Balhae Dynasty under Khitan rule and so a race between the two fractions begins to find the only remaining Prince. A new charismatic Balhae King could re-awaken the people into military action against their invading rivals, if he can survive long enough to take the royal throne.
Balhae’s top female warrior Yeon So-Ha (Yoon Soy) is given the task of accompany the exiled Prince Jeong-Hyeon back to the kingdom now that the remaining heirs have all been wiped out by the Khitan. Unfortunately she quickly discovers that life in a humble village has changed Jeong-Hyeon into a no good selfish crook completely out of touch with his noble roots. Her task of re-awakening the future king so that he can re-awaken his subjects isn’t made any easier when Khitan assassins Gun Hwa-Pyeong (Shin Hyeon-Joon) and his female companion Mae Yeong-Ok (Lee Gi-Yong) turn up with the deadly intention of cutting the next king’s reign prematurely.
Director Kim Young-jun claims to have learnt considerably from his previous experience making Bichunmoo and I tend to agree as he’s managed to avoid most of the pitfalls which ruined that film. Although it’s been almost five years in the making Shadowless Sword improves on Young-jun’s previous Wuxia effort with a bigger budget and most importantly more experience resulting in much more confident direction.
What really elevates Shadowless Sword above some of the more recent prettier Wuxia flicks from Asia is it’s attention to detail in the action scenes. Young-Jin has the good sense to keep CGI to a bare minimum and using a more traditional hands-on approach to the wire work and fight choreography he creates a much more satisfying display of martial arts. Not once is the action bogged down by over powering special effects and that makes Shadowless Sword quite refreshing when stood along side some of the more recent big budget CGI dominated martial arts features.
There are a number of criticisms that can be levelled at the film, most notably a general lack of originality in the plot or characters. Once again there’s two warring fractions locked in an almighty battle for power, once again the blade is integral to victory, and once again there’s a patchy love sub plot between the two leads. But none of these things should be enough to detract you from what is at heart a fun film written purely to entertain.
All things considered Young-jin has delivered an extremely accomplished Wuxia movie and finally shaken off the embarrassment of being known as the director of the mediocre Bichunmoo. Shadowless Sword with it’s more basic grass roots execution nods back to the glory days of wire-fu, back when Wuxia was purely about the martial arts and held no obligations to pseudo-artistic expressionism via a blanket of over powering metaphorical colouring. Well acted, well shot, and most of all fun Shadowless Sword deserves to be seen by an international audience. Just because the domestic Korean audience remains completely indifferent to perfectly enjoyable Wuxia movies doesn’t mean the rest of us have too.