A pedal-to-the-metal martial arts actioner that makes up in visceral appeal what it lacks in coherency, “Sword in the Moon” could carve a niche career in Western markets on the back of latenight fest outings, with ancillary genre appeal down the line. Latest South Korean stab at producing a big-budget swordplay movie is considerably better directed than the clumsy “Bichunmoo,” but lacks the narrative sweep and character drama of “Musa: The Warrior.”
Film opened softly in mid-July on home turf, where the lavish, 150-part TV costumer “The Age of Warriors” (Muin shidae) is gripping the country. Film also has had a storied history, starting production two years ago, running out of money when shooting was almost complete, and finally staging the pic’s finale earlier this year. Movie’s breathless style and frequent ellipses in the narrative point to drastic cutting of an originally much longer picture; in practice, however, the result works on its own terms, as a gutsy, no-holds-barred entertainment.
Setting is the early 17th century, a period of major social change in Korea when the power of the traditional Confucian state had been rocked by an attempted Japanese invasion some 30 years earlier. An elite band of imperial guards, code-named Cheongpung Myeongweol (Fresh Wind, Bright Moon), is set up to protect the status quo. Its two top warriors, and sworn brothers till death, are Choi Ji-hwan (Choi Min-su) and Yun Gyu-yeob (Jo Jae-hyeon). Events conspire, however, to separate the pair, and when Yun turns on Choi, the latter disappears, badly wounded.
All this background isn’t explained until a 15-minute flashback halfway through the movie. Pic actually opens with a series of mysterious murders of officials, with Yun in charge of the investigation. Following a pacey nighttime sequence set in a sprawling manse and a well-staged confrontation in a bamboo forest, it becomes clear that Choi is behind the assassinations, aided by his lover, swordswoman Shi-yeong (Kim Bo-gyeong).
Yun manages to capture Shi-yeong and torture her for info — at which point the flashback occurs to provide auds with some badly needed background. Back in the present, Choi manages to rescue her, leading to the big set piece finale in which the pair attempts to assassinate a top official on an elaborate pontoon bridge, a battle in which Choi and Yun go head to head.
Action sequences, supervised by Korean maestro Weon Jin (“My Wife Is a Gangster”) and Hong Kong’s prolific martial arts choreographer Yuen Bin, have an earthy quality, enhanced by plenty of slo-mo, a pulsing synths score and authentically bulky armor and weaponry.
Locations in China, repping period Korea, are also flavorsome, with the fight in the bamboo forest and a face-off between Yun and Choi by a waterfall among the action highlights. In the pontoon finale, Gweon Yu-jin’s deep-black warrior costumes and imperial reds, yellows and blues are eye-catching.
Narratively and psychologically, however, pic is a mess, and largely relies on the virile playing of Choi and Jo as the two former friends. Choi, whose tight-jawed intensity fueled “Phantom: The Submarine” and drama “Libera Me,” is especially good as the vengeful, long-haired assassin; Jo, unrecognizable from his shaven-headed turn in Kim Ki-duk’s “Bad Guy,” gets by with fearsome eye-work as the callous Yun.
Pic’s title is the code name for the elite military unit, a phrase that ironically means being at one’s ease and well satisfied with life.