A Korean swordplay movie that comes the closest of any Korean movie so far in reaching the excellence of Hong Kong examples, “The Legend of the Evil Lake” is a thoroughly entertaining ride readymade for Western distribs specializing in East Asian genre fare. Cleanly told yarn of an evil force unleashed during the dying days of the Shilla dynasty hardly pauses for breath during its trim 92 minutes and doesn’t wear out the viewer with an excess of f/x. Pic was a moderate success locally at the end of last year, with some 500,000 admissions (around $3 million).
Though it’s produced at least one very good costume action-drama (“Musa,” 2001) plus the gutsy swordfest “Sword in the Moon” (2003), South Korea’s film industry has yet to match the devil-may-care brio of Hong Kong swordplay movies. “Legend,” shot in China and with Hong Kong action ace Yuen Tak supervising fight chores, wisely focuses on a small group of characters, keeps its storyline uncomplicated and makes a virtue out of relatively simple wire-work and CGI.
Prelude, set in 57 B.C. at the end of the “tribal age of darkness,” shows Shilla founder Park Hyokkose wiping out the Moon Tribe and imprisoning the spirit of its leader, Auta, in the earth with a magic sword. Flash-forward almost a thousand years, to A.D. 896, and the Shilla, under Queen Chinsong (Kim Hye-ri), are in deep trouble, with rebels everywhere.
The queen’s loyal general, Biharang (Jeong Jun-ho), holds back popular unrest, though he privately thinks the monarchy should be abolished. Also, to the disappointment of the queen (who loves him) and another general, Bang (who mistrusts him), Biharang has fallen for a cute peasant girl, Jaunbi (Kim Hyo-jin), whose dad was executed for sympathizing with the rebels.
When Bang tries to murder Jaunbi, she draws the magic sword out of the ground unleashing Auta’s angry spirit. Possessed by Auta’s demon, Jaunbi flies around wreaking havoc.
Jeong cuts a suitably conflicted heroic figure as Biharang and handles himself well in the action sequences, which are slick and effective, helped by atmospheric widescreen lensing and a chivalrous score. Kim Hyo-jin impresses more as the possessed Jaunbi than as the peasant babe, but it’s Kim Hye-ri, as the regal, lovelorn queen, who steals the distaff acting honors.
Helmer Lee Kwang-hoon, best known for the effects-heavy contempo romance, “Ghost in Love” (1998), keeps things on the move without undue haste, aided by Lee Hyeon-mi’s smooth editing.