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In 2000, director Kim Young-jun wowed and befuddled viewers and critics alike with “Bichunmoo”, a swordplay movie with a ton of action but an undecipherable storyline. Kim’s follow-up, 2005’s “Shadowless Sword”, fairs much better in the screenplay department, in that you can actually follow the film’s plot threads, and there’s certainly more than enough action to satiate any martial arts junkie. Having said that, the story, though much more coherent this time around, is unfortunately bland and predictable, right down to its melodramatic ending, posing swordsmen, and high-flying sword duels.
“Shadowless Sword” is set in 10th century Korea , where the ruling dynasty, the Balhae, have all but crumbled under invasion. A resistance army remains, and in order to lead them, lone female warrior Soha (So-yi Yoon, “Arahan”) is dispatched to find and bring back the last remaining member of the royal family bloodline, Prince Jeong-hyeon (Seo-jin Lee). You’d think since the job is such a monumentally important one, they would send more than just one woman, but maybe that’s just me. Alas, the Prince, who has been exiled for the last 15 years, is a back-alley dealing scoundrel who makes a living buying and selling stolen wares, and is not exactly King material, much to Soha’s consternation.
Soon, the two are on the run from badass assassin Kun (Hyeong-jun Shin, the star of “Bichunmoo”), who is on their tail with his army of masked ninjas (they even throw shurikens!) and deadly second-in-command, the beautiful and very loyal Mae (Ki-yong Lee). A quite predictable chase through the countryside ensues, with Soha and Jeong-Hyeon attempting to say one step ahead of the assassins, although curiously this never amounts to much. To wit: ten minutes of Jeong-Hyeon and Soha bonding is immediately followed by the band of assassins miraculously finding them, or laying in wait ahead of them. The duo escapes to fight another day, of course, or else there wouldn’t be a movie.
Much of “Shadowless Sword” will be sold on the basis of its wild and stylized martial arts, of which there is plenty. Action lovers will certainly not be bored, as much of the film revolves around the hunted running, stopping, bonding, fighting the hunters, and then repeat process. As such, the film has a predictable air about it that is at times disappointing. That is, if you cared about such things as convincing romance, original character development, and all that other high-falutin’ stuff. If not, then “Shadowless Sword” more than lives up to its promise of sword fights by the gallon — and then some.
Star So-yi Yoon was no doubt cast on the strength of her performance in 2003’s fantasy martial arts movie “Arahan”, and she remains a very capable, physical actress, if not exactly charismatic. Faring much better is Seo-jin Lee, whose affable turn as the Prince in scoundrel’s clothing keeps the film lively, as he attempts to elude not just his pursuers, but also his bodyguard. There is a curious interlude where the two meet and clash with a “gang” (as Seo-jin Lee calls them) of what looks like rejects from Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”. One wonders what was the purpose (aside from some winks at the audience that escapes me), as the sequence amounts to very little.
As the main villain of the piece, Hyeon-jun Shin has done better work, and if anything his Kun could pass for the twin of his villain in the fantasy “Gingko Bed”, right down to the exaggerated hair style, wardrobe, and evil disposition. Plus, I’m not sure if Shin’s eyes are naturally dark, but it really looks like the man is wearing mascara throughout the film. The film’s best, and untapped character, though, has to be the female assassin Mae, played by the exotic Ki-yong Lee. Unfortunately Mae gets very little development, and her character’s singular personality is her undying loyalty (and unrequited love, perhaps?) for Kun. She’s so loyal, in fact, that she even, as the saying goes, takes one for the team. Now that’s what I call loyalty!
Movies like “Shadowless Sword” lives and dies by its promise of action, and in this area the film more than makes up for the pedestrian screenwriting. Still, even this aspect of the film is mired somewhat by Kim’s insistence on shooting the action scenes in such a frenetic style that it’s really impossible to tell what anyone is doing onscreen. Compare the action scenes here to Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, where every movement is precise and clearly visible, and “Shadowless Sword” sometimes comes across like an exercise in people posing with swords in-between moments of them leaping into the air and twirling around as hidden wires yank them to and fro. But if style is what you’re looking for, “Sword” has it in abundance.
“Shadowless Sword” is an unsubstantial genre entry with few outstanding moments, but is nevertheless pleasingly (if vacuously) entertaining from beginning to end. The nearly two hour running time will seem like 90 minutes, and there is just so much action that it’s hard to ever get bored, whether by the perfunctory romance, or Kim’s oblivious attempt at some sort of plot twist involving Soha and Jeong-Hyeon’s shared history. Plus, there are some unintentional (or were they intentional after all?) comedy to be had, especially in the early parts when it looks as if all the men’s wardrobe came straight from Captain Jack Sparrow’s private collection.
Young-jun Kim (director)
CAST: Ki-yong Lee …. Mae
Seo-jin Lee …. Prince Jeong-Hyeon
Hyeon-jun Shin …. Kun
So-yi Yoon …. Soha