The story of Empress Myeongseong is revisited and re-imagined in “The Sword with no Name”, from director Kim Yong Kyun (“Red Shoes”), focusing on a romanticised relationship with a fictional bodyguard. The Empress has long been a fascinating and important figure in Korean history, being known for her involvement in politics and foreign affairs, and for her standing against Japanese aggression, and so there is plenty of scope for exploring her life in more detail. Kim not only does this, but also paints the picture of a country coming to terms with the changing modern world, as well as throwing in plenty of old fashioned romance and sword fighting duels.
The film is set in the Joseon court during the late nineteenth century, and revolves around the tale of a young woman called Ja Yeong (Soo Ae, “Sunny”), destined to become the Empress Myeongseong. Before heading to her marriage with the King, she meets Moo Myeong (Cho Seung Woo, in his last role before military service), a rough though friendly bodyguard who falls deeply in love with her. Although their relationship is brought to a halt by her impending nuptials, Moo Myeong is determined to protect her, and enlists in the palace guard. The two balance their love with politics, the needs of the country, and the changing times, which see Korea defining its role with the West, and with the Japanese threatening an invasion.
The most striking aspect of “The Sword with no Name” is that it is stylistically quite an odd mix. At times director Kim goes with a wholly naturalistic style, which though not going quite so far as to employ modern shaky handheld camera techniques does makes the proceedings feel a lot less stoic than other historical dramas. The fact that these scenes generally occur when the characters are outside, and in particular when Moo Myeong and Ja Yeong are together and away from the confines of the court, not only adds a touch of realism, but quite neatly underscores the nuances of their relationship. This helps draw the viewer into the story, making things more lively and contrasting with some of the more formal costume and set based sequences. The film is actually quite poetic and beautiful in places, with some of its more quiet and tender scenes being gently effective.
At other times the film goes entirely in the other direction and leaps headlong into CGI, with some completely over the top “Hero” like duel scenes, filled with slow motion, computer enhanced acrobatics and pounding music. These fights take place for no apparent reason against different fantasy backgrounds, with the characters suddenly transported to vast blue frozen lakes, where fish and butterflies fly through their sword strokes. Although the choreography features a bit too much in the way of fast editing and the film resembles “The Storm Riders” in a few places, this is all quite good fun, and the battles do help to keep things moving along at a good pace. Whilst this may sound like a chaotic mix, it actually works quite well, and though the film is perhaps not necessarily coherent in terms of approach, it is visually impressive, and to an extent enjoys the best of both worlds, being alternately grounded and glossy.
The film also benefits from its fascinating historical context and back story, being epic in scope and covering such a key period in engaging and interesting fashion. There is plenty in the way of politics, deception and intrigue, and the story is pleasingly substantial when it needs to be. Kim manages a good balance between character and more dramatic narrative, which helps to distract from the fact that there is essentially nothing new here. Certainly, the whole Empress and bodyguard love tale has been told many times before, and given the film’s factual grounding, its ending is known from the start. Still, Empress Myeongseong remains a complex and compelling figure, with Soo Ae turning in an excellent performance, anchoring, though not dominating the film. Her relationship with Moo Myeong is all the better for not being too romantic or clichéd, and this helps to keep things believable. Given the tragedy of the film’s climatic events, it does get rather sad and depressing, though thankfully not in too melodramatic a manner.
In this too the film is a successful balancing act, and is one of the few historical epics to juggle intimate and wider, national concerns, being at once the story of a country and of two people in love. Featuring action, intrigue and romance, it breathes a touch of new life into a familiar story by being heartfelt, passionate and by mixing a traditional approach to the historical costume drama with something a little more exciting.
Kim Yong-gyoon (director) / Lee Sook-yeon (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-woong Choi, Seung-woo Cho, In-gu Heo, Se-hyeong Ki, Seol-gu Lee, Su-Ae