The inability of South Korea’s industry to produce a top-class swordplay extravaganza is again laid bare in “Shadowless Sword,” an episodic, occasionally entertaining but earthbound martial artser. Helmer Kim Young-jun directs more smoothly than in his debut attempt, “Bichunmoo” (2000), but again brings no sense of myth or magic to the yarn, and is let down by uncharismatic leads. Partly funded by New Line, big-budgeter scraped only a blah 500,000 admissions (about $3 million) on local release last November and looks likely to go straight to ancillary in many territories.
New Line’s longer version, being sold at markets and reviewed here, is already available as a Director’s Cut on Korean DVD. No firm U.S. release date has been announced.
South Korea’s failure to crack the swordplay genre is partly cultural, with the country having no literary tradition (unlike China) of martial arts stories or training tradition like Peking Opera. Korean thesps simply don’t look at ease in such pictures compared with Chinese actors, even though “Sword,” like “Bichunmoo,” uses Hong Kong action directors. “Musa” still remains the most successful South Korean attempt, though that 2001 pic was more a historical action-drama than a fully fledged wuxia movie.
Time is A.D. 927, when Georan invaders have conquered the ancient Korean capital of Balhae and set up a new country, Dongran-guk. The leaders of Balhae desperately need a royal figure to reunite their nation. They find a prince, the previously exiled Dae Jeong-hyeon, who’s hiding out under the name So-sam (Lee Seo-jin).
The leaders dispatch a peerless swordswoman, Yeon So-ha (Yun So-i, the fighter babe in “Arahan”), to protect So-sam before Georan’s Killer Blade Army, commanded by Gun-hwa-pyeong (Shin Hyeon-jun), find him first. Initially, he sends his deputy, Mae-yeong-ok (newcomer Lee Gi-yeong), to handle the situation: She wants to become the greatest swordswoman of the age and knows she must first kill Yeon.
That’s it for motivation and plot, which climaxes in a four-way duel on a flag-covered plain, followed by several codas. One of these underlines the strong nationalistic tone of the movie, which can be read as an allegory for the Koreans finally booting the Japanese out of their country in the mid-20th century.
Lee Gi-yeong brings a smoldering sexuality to the evil Mae-yeong-ok but it’s the dreadlocked Shin (from “Bichunmoo”) who dominates the going as the main baddie. Lee Seo-jin is bland as the pesky prince, and there’s little chemistry between him and Yun, who’s unconvincing as a dedicated swordswoman and has none of the sexual charisma she oozed in “Arahan.”
Action sequences are just OK but with little mystical element and no sense of sword mythology. Kim Jun-seon’s music adds some oomph, though not enough to carry the movie through its so-so dialogue scenes. Costuming has a strikingly exotic flavor, with deep blacks and occasional modern-punk touches.
Six-month shoot in China took place around Wuxi, Kunming and Lijiang, with studio work at Hengdian Studios, south of Shanghai.