Saulabi (2001) Movie Review

“Saulabi” has all the makings of a TV movie with some added R-rated footage showing gratuitous violence and bloodletting in order to justify a theatrical release. The South Korean film, about Korean expatriates who find themselves on the wrong side of the samurai in feudal Japan, features some truly awful music that would be too corny even for a soap opera. Also, the film is so skewed against the Japanese that you wonder why any self-respecting Japanese actor would voluntarily be a part of the movie.

Meaning “warrior” in Korean, “Saulabi” follows Korea’s master swordsman, Ko Woo-do (Sang Hyun Lee) as he travels to a Japanese village to forge a sword called the “Heaven’s Sword” that, once completed, is to be brought back to Korea to restore the might of a certain defeated kingdom. Ko’s quest to make the fabled super-duper weapon (it can supposedly cut through steel) is sidetracked when he becomes attracted to Osame (Uememya Masako), the daughter of a local Lord who wants her to marry the province’s Samurai Lord. As expected, things get hairy, Ko becomes a target, and a lot of people get killed rather unconvincingly.

I’m not going to say that “Saulabi” is a bad movie. It’s just not very well thought out and executed. The screenplay by Hwan-kyeong Lee is so in love with the notion of the saulabi as the warrior spirit of the Koreans that the word comes up, say, once every other sentence. There’s also an attempt to contrast the saulabi with the samurai, but any impression that this is an honest comparison goes out the window very quickly. The film is so biased against the samurai and the Japanese that nearly all the Japanese men in the film either grunts a lot, laughs maniacally, or has the bad habit of going around beheading people for no particular reason. The movie actually reminds me of another South Korean film, “Lost Memories”, which was also very unflattering to the Japanese.

Takaaki Enoki (“Heaven and Earth”) plays Ando, the Samurai Lord who is supposed to marry Osame. Enoki is supposed to be Japan’s best swordsman, but like the film’s portrayal of Ko, supposedly Korea’s best swordsman, the two actors look clumsy holding their respective weapons. How do I know Ando and Ko are supposed to be their respective country’s best swordsman? Because characters in the film keep reminding us of this fact over and over again. In the end, the movie’s perception of the two men overwhelms the actors’ abilities (or lack thereof).

As previously mentioned, one can’t shake the feeling that “Saulabi” was originally a TV movie. It’s as if someone realized they could put the film in theaters, so they went back after production and shot additional footages in close-up so that way the actors’ faces don’t have to appear, thus allowing the usage of cheap extras. The close-ups involve bloody images like swords entering bodies, etc. I bring this up only because the violence in the film is shot as tame, and the choreography of the action scenes are so poor that anyone with eyes can see that sometimes those swords don’t come anywhere close to touching their “victims”.

“Saulabi” is a decent TV movie, although it takes its ludicrous situations way too seriously. It has the kind of “love triangle” tailor made for soap operas because they’re so cheesy and unbelievably plotted, and the acting is too spotty by all involve to be effective. The Japanese characters really don’t have much to do other than to grunt and look evil. And no offense to actress Uememya Masako, but why in the world would anyone fight (much less be willing to die) for her? She’s spoiled, not very attractive, and because of her aristocratic upbringing, spends her time moping about how “bad” her life of luxury is. Of course, if she weren’t so rich and well off, she wouldn’t have all those free time to “think” so much in the first place.

Note: despite the film’s rather strange English title (“Time Travel to the Time of the Samurai”) the movie is not about time travel.

Jong-geum Mun (director) / Hwan-kyeong Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-Sung Choi …. Kim Jin-woo
Takaaki Enoki …. Ando
Sang Hyun Lee …. Ko Woo-do
Uememya Masako …. Osame

Buy Saulabi on DVD