The actual title of “Legend of Gingko,” as revealed in the movie’s opening sequence, is actually “Legend of Gingko Tree.” Which brings me to this point: I don’t think the actual Gingko Tree shows up at all in the movie; although there is a big, giant tree that appears toward the end of the film, which a character tries to “kill” with a sword. That could very well be the Gingko Tree in question, although I could be wrong since one of the biggest hazard of watching a subtitled Asian movie is that the subtitles are notoriously unreliable.
“Legend of Gingko” is a period action film that resembles a South Korean “Conan”, with its broadswords and realistic fighting style merged with a soap opera vibe — i.e. heavy melodrama and predictable love affairs. The film opens with an existing ancient feud between two warring tribes that resides around a giant mountain called Mount Holy; one tribe has become prosperous, while the other live in a miserable part of the land where food doesn’t grow and they have to resort to “eating the flesh of their dead” for sustenance. The not-so-happy tribe creates a Holy Sword that can destroy the Mountain and the other tribe, but first they must sacrifice a young girl name Vee (Jin-shil Choi) in order to “power” this supernatural sword. And before you know it, a lot of people — and I do mean a lot — are losing their heads in combat.
Like a lot of movie in its genre, “Legend of Gingko” falls back on the old standby concerning a prophecy that can’t be avoided, and how one side tries to make the prophecy come true while the other tries to stop it, etc. That, incidentally, is the only aspect of the film that fails to entertain, mostly because it comes across as old hat. A silly, old, and worn-out hat.
As a major plus, there is very little of the stylish fighting stances and wireworks one is used to in these movies, and in fact I’m hardpressed to remember an action sequence that was aided by any kind of wires or CGI. In an effort to put us into the action, director Je-hyeon Park has elected to film much of the action using handheld cameras that shakes and vibrates, giving everything a chaotic feel. It works, and the film’s depiction of brutal primitive combat is quite effective, not to mention very bloody. Heads get decapitated and knives pierce bodies on a constant basis.
The blood flows quite freely, although this also leads to another problem. Because there is so much combat and people get wounded so often, the filmmakers tend to ignore continuity, and fresh wounds on hands, faces, and legs heal magically just in time for the next scene. I wouldn’t make such a federal case out of this if the film hadn’t been so intent on shoving these wounds in my face, complete with drenching blood.
The film falters and becomes repetitive whenever it returns to its prophecy plot, which also includes CGI effects inspired by “The Abyss” — remember those “living” water aliens? Those same aliens make more than one unnecessary appearance in “Legend,” much to the film’s detriment. If anything, the CGI emphasizes that “Legend” can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be: a realistic film about brutal combat, grungy living conditions and bad hygiene, or a flighty fantasy about flying water and super duper swords? The indecision becomes bothersome after a while, especially since all the flighty fantasy stuff undermines all the harsh combat.
Like many of its Asian predecessors in the genre, “Legend” is plagued by too much melodrama. The love triangle (or is that quadruple?) is not very interesting, mostly because the film can’t convince me that long-time friends Dahn (Seok-hun Kim) and Juk (Kyung-gu Sol) would not only go to blows, but also betray each other, for Vee. This comment is made in light of the fact that the Vee character has almost no personality to speak off and walks through the film on automatic pilot with her hair draped over her face. If there is someone to be fought over, the fiery Yeon (Yoon-jin Kim), a master archer, might have made a better prize. Yeon’s character is fully realized and actually has a personality. But then again, films in this genre have always preferred the weak damsel in distress to the sword-bearing female warrior, so what else is new.
“Legend of Gingko” is an interesting, if slightly too long, film. Its portrayal of brutal combat puts it in the same category as the South Korean period film “Musa,” which unlike “Legend” made a concerted effort to maintain a constant level of reality. Unfortunately “Legend” also wanders into fantasy, which makes it more like the Chinese movie “Legend of Zu,” a film that redefined the phrase “all style and no substance.” A better movie might have been able to pull off these two vastly different approaches, but “Legend of Gingko” is not it.
Je-hyeon Park (director)
CAST: Seok-hun Kim …. Dahn
Kyung-gu Sol …. Juk
Jin-shil Choi …. Vee
Yoon-jin Kim …. Yeon
Mi-suk Lee …. Su
Hyeong-jin Kong …. Seong-kwan