I’m pretty sure the South Korean martial arts/period movie “Sword in the Moon” is wall-to-wall swordfighting action; I just wish I could see some of it. Granted, since the movie is about assassins, and assassins like to kill people at night, it makes sense that the bulk of the film’s action takes place at night, hidden in darkness. Then again, this is just a movie, and who needs logical sense when characters are leaping across rooftops on wires? Couple the nocturnal swordplay with blurry cinematography (the battle scenes are chopped up to make it appear as if everyone is moving in a herky jerky/blurry fashion) and you’ve got yourself a bad idea for an action film.
“Sword in the Moon” has everything you expect in your Asian martial arts/period movie. All the usual themes are present, from loyalty to honor to the cruel hand of fate. In this case, fate seems to exist solely to toy with humans, careful to squeeze out the maximum mental and physical anguish. In “Sword”, fate’s number one target is Yun (Jae-hyeon Jo), the King’s highest ranked bodyguard. But Yun, born to a lowly concubine, didn’t always hold that position. Before a rebellion by the previous King’s own generals toppled the previous empire, Yun was best friends with Choi (Min-su Choi) and the lovely Shi-yeong (Bo-kyeong Kim), and all three were disciples of the Sword in the Moon school, where peace and national unity is preached by its master, Shi-yeong’s father.
As fate would have it, Choi and Yun are assigned to different units after their graduation, and by the time they meet again, the two men are fighting on different sides. Choi is betrayed by Yun, who under great duress is forced to throw his loyalties in with the traitorous rebels. Years later, Choi is back with a vengeance, and with Shi-yeong help, they’re cutting a path of death across the King’s loathsome Ministers. As dictated by fate (there’s that word again!) and Asian movie conventions, Yun is dispatched to stop the killings. What await both men are tested loyalties, honor, and all that other good stuff no self-respecting Asian martial arts/period movie can do without.
Aside from a general inability to see much of the action, “Sword in the Moon” is not a bad 90-odd minutes. Of course that doesn’t make it a very good one, either, as it’s highly predictable from beginning to end. “Sword” actually starts out quite differently from how it eventually ends, with the first 30 minutes or so looking more like your standard police investigation set in Chosun times. There’s even a young rookie character partnered up with an old, gruff veteran. How’s that for cop cliché? But that’s all forgotten, with the rest of the film devoted to flashbacks to brighter and happier days as Choi, Yun, and Shi-yeong enjoy their time learning the “good guy” ways of the Sword in the Moon school.
The flashbacks certainly help to shed light on what’s happened to the major characters, and for the most part offer up a lighter shade to the movie’s overall grim tone. The film spends most of its time with its emotionally shattered characters, as they mope, engage in internal monologue, and generally wait for the inevitable confrontation. You know it’s coming, and when it finally does, there’s a sense of relief that, finally, things are getting resolved. In-between the wait, Choi continues to gun for the Ministers, while Yun continues to be conflicted by his split loyalties, sometimes even helping Choi continue his rampage. Whose side is this guy on, anyway?
As a drama, “Sword in the Moon” works much better, thanks in no small part to Jae-hyeon Jo (recently in the Jopok comedy “Gangster’s Paradise”), whose character seems permanently on the precipice of finally taking a stand and telling fate to take a hike. Compared to Jo’s performance, Min-su Choi (“Yesterday”) is less successful, mostly because he’s not called on to display as much range as Jo. In flashback Choi is handsome and aristocratic, but in the present he’s lost all ability to comb his hair, so every scene in the present features Choi with his hair hanging messily over his face. It’s all very Ekin Cheng-ish. And who knew betrayal by your best friend could lead to graying hair?
Who knows if “Sword in the Moon” might have been a better movie had you been able to seen some of its many, many swordfights, especially since the script is a little dull, moving in spurts and chugging unenthusiastically toward the inevitable conclusion. Also, the villains simply have nothing to do, leaving much of the movie for Choi and Shi-yeong to knock off cartoonishly evil bad guys in the dark, while Yun wrestles with his inner demons.
As well, more should have been done with Shi-yeong, who we don’t even know is a woman until she takes off her ninja-like assassin’s garb to take a bath in front of a waterfall. It’s a stimulating sight, to be sure, but one does wish for more development, especially in regards to her relationship with Choi. Did they even consummate their relationship in the years between the betrayal and now? We have no idea, because the movie seems to have thrown Shi-yeong into the mix just to have a woman handle a couple of swords, while her stunt double handles all the nighttime action scenes.
Then again, maybe I’m being a little unfair, because I believe there are at least two battle scenes that didn’t take place at night. But since Kim shot these scenes using that blurry style of his, the characters could have been dancing disco for all I know. Oh sure, it looked like people were bleeding, but then again, disco has been known to cause bloody discharges, so there you go.
Ui-seok Kim (director) / Min-seok Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Min-su Choi …. Choi, Ji-hwan
Jae-hyeon Jo …. Yun, Gyu-yeob
Bo-kyeong Kim …. Shi-yeong
Jong-su Lee …. Jae-deok