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.

Yet another anthology from the East Black Night consists of 3 short horror films from Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand using the same formula previously seen in Three…Extremes.

Next Door: Self centered rock chick Jane (Annie Liu) returns from Taiwan to patch things up with on/off boyfriend Joe (Dylan Kuo). Unfortunately Joe shacked up with Hosie (Race Wong) the girl next door while she was away which unbeknown to him has triggered off a deadly love triangle that manifests itself with spooky consequences for those involved.

Shot by Hong Kong director Patrick Leung Next Door never really gets off the ground due to an under written relationship between the two leads which is what the ‘horror’ element justifies itself on. It’s not helped by the fact that neither Jane nor Joe are particularly well thought out characters - Jane is self-obsessed and compulsive, Joe shifts between apartments seemingly with no sense of loyalty to either female companion. When the supernatural elements are introduced (far too early on) they lack any real emotional impact or originality consisting of the same old formulas like random puddles and ghostly children.

Dark Hole: Yuki (Asaka Seto) is haunted by re-occurring nightmares so reluctantly hires psychiatrist Dr. Kawai (Tomorowo Taguchi) to try and find out where the bad dreams are coming from. It doesn’t take long to uncover a series of buried memories deep in Yuki’s subconscious from 15 years previous. Could these subconscious memories explain why a ghostly child in a yellow jumper keeps following her?

Dark Hole is from Japanese director Takihiko Akiyama and noticeably inferior to the previous film in the series. With the visual appearance of a soap opera and a ridiculously absurd plot, even taking into account this is horror fiction, Dark Hole is by far the weakest out of the anthology. You could skip straight to the third film in the series and you really wouldn’t be missing much.

Lost Memory: Young single mother Prang (Pitchanart Sakhakorn) is trying to repatch her life back together following a recent car crash resulting in memory loss whilst still parenting her son. Her vulnerable condition induces intermittent heightened states of paranoia not helped by the local media coverage of a child kidnapper gang still on the loose.

Directed by Thanit Jitnukul this Thai entry is by far the strongest in the anthology. Containing very little in the way of obvious shock tactics Lost Memories is more a portrayal of emotional grief under pined by some super natural imagery. Unlike the previous two films Jitnukul has put some real thought into art direction and cinematography. He’s also the only director to provide a likable central character who the audience can care about.

If you must purchase Black Night then bare in mind it’s only really the third film which is worthy of your money. Even Asian horror completists would have a hard time justifying the purchase. You’re better off watching Three…Extremes and waiting for a UK distributor to pick up Black Night so you can give it a rental. 

Running Wild marks the full length cinematic debut from Kim Sung-soo, a prodigy of one of South Korea’s biggest and most internationally respected directors Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). As such this film has a lot to live up too and it’s not exactly surprising that it doesn’t quite make the grade.

Jang Do-young (Kwon Sang-woo) is a homicide detective whose code of conduct is indistinguishable to the street thugs and gangsters he’s paid to bring to justice. Emotionally strained from his mothers illness and the guilt for arresting his younger half-brother Dong-jik who tried to raise funds for medical bills using illegal methods, Do-young is already a walking time bomb more than happy to unleash his volatile nature on any remotely suspicious suspect. When brother Dong-jik is released from prison after a 3 year stay the Guryong family quickly track him down and leave him for dead in the street, which leads Do-young to embark on a violent trail of revenge.

On the flip side of the coin we have Prosecutor Oh Jin-woo (Yoo Ji-tae) who believes in bringing down criminals by the book and respecting the law. He’s dedicated himself to toppling the Guryong family empire who are currently going through a transitional phase from mafia outfit to legitimate business with political interests. Frustrated from a lack of leads Oh Jin-woo looks towards the more reckless hands on approach of Do-young to shed new light on the case. Do-young has also hit a road block trying to find out why his brother was murdered so now the two very different personalities have a common interest.

It’s not hard to see why the plot description might have some re-referencing director Kim Sung-soo’s history with Park Chan-woo. After all it reads as another violent revenge tale, something Park is most famed for with his unofficial revenge trilogy, however that’s where the comparison ends. Running Wild with it’s faded tint and cat vs mouse scenarios is more akin to the recent spat of slow moving cop dramas that’s come out of Hong Kong of late than anything domestic. Only the occasional over the top melodramatics and token camera shots draws you back into familiar Korean territory.

Unfortunately there’s relatively little to separate Running Wild from any other recent cop thriller other than some note worthy visual techniques. There’s nothing strictly wrong yet it doesn’t stand out from the crowd either and to be honest, given the background of Sung-soo it’s hard not to take a reasonably entertaining movie as a minor disappointment. Cliché’s are what drives Running Wild resulting in some heavy handed preaching about the corrupt Korean judicial system but there’s nothing Sung-soo adds to the debate which hasn’t been said a million times before. While other directors have taken clichés and still created a highly inventive and relevant film like Kim Ji-wun’s A Bittersweet Life (another director Sung-soo has a history with), Sung-soo fails to put his own unique stamp on his effort and struggles to offer anything remotely personal.

Technically Running Wild is well shot and makes great use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio although great technical ability is nothing unique in Korean cinema and it’s obvious Sung-soo still needs to grow as a director and discover his own edge. At the moment he’s just treding in the foot steps of far greater directors and unfortunately that has the adverse effect of making his efforts look all too inferior in contrast to those he’s been influenced by.

When I first heard about the forthcoming release of The Promise I commented that the talents of Cecilia Chung alone would elevate this picture above that of House of Flying Daggers. I should have remembered though that Chung has had a string of stinkers ever since she swept the gongs for her performances in One Night in Mongkok and Lost in Time - It seems critical recognition has been something of a minor curse for Chung whose struggled to pick a decent movie for the past 2 years (the less said about Sex and the Beauties the better) the only exception being the reasonably entertaining spoof of consumer culture - Shopaholics.

So once again we’re hit with the ugly reality of big budgets substituting for a lack of plot this time in The Promise. Chen Kaige (otherwise famed for the excellent Farewell My Concubine and Emperor and the Assassin) directs this occasionally stunning but ultimately hollow fantasy tale which takes a simple plot and tries to make it as incomprehensible as possible within the 2 hour running time.

One time peasant girl turned Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) is destined to experience riches but never real love due to a pact she made with Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong) as a child to escape a life of extreme poverty. Manshen holds a similar depressing fate for military General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), Master of the prestigious Crimson Armour whom despite being forever loyal to his Emperor is destined to be stripped of honour and shamed for treason. When Guangming is injured and left unable to make the agreed arrangement with the Emperor he hands his Crimson Armour down to his slave Kunlun (Jang Dong-kun) to pose as his body double, an act which unwittingly fulfils the prophesy of the Goddess.

The Promise is another fantasy epic awash with CGI, a growing trend in Chinese cinema. No longer is the curse of CGI reserved purely for over blown Hollywood output but Chinese movies have increasingly hit the same downward spiral. Used reservedly CGI can enhance a movie immensely but when the onscreen CGI becomes the catalyst for the very creation of the movie itself, inevitably any human element and genuine emotion is left buried somewhere under the visual extravagance. Of course this is something of a double edged sword as no one can deny that The Promise is a fantastical feast for the eyes. There’s the occasional ropy CGI shot during action scenes but the costumes and magical backdrops are always inventive and excruciatingly detailed. Even if there’s very little underneath Kaige creates an extravagant thick outer layer and that just might be enough for many movie goers.

Exactly why Chen Kaige decided to pick up The Promise is anyone’s guess. It’s a million miles away from the art house directors previous body of work and such over blown obnoxious nonsense stands out like a sore thumb compared to the intricate character driven pictures Kaige is renowned for. Perhaps in making a commercial movie he felt he was stretching his talents in some reversed way. If The Promise is to be judged by it’s Chinese box office takings then he’s once again delivered a resounding success.