REVIEW: DVD Release: The Sword With No Name

Film: The Sword With No Name
Release date: 20th September 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 120 mins
Director: Kim Yong-gyun
Starring: Baek Jae-jin, Choi Jae-woong, Cho Seung-woo, Heo In-gu, Go Su-hee
Genre: Action/Drama/Martial Arts/Romance
Studio: Cine Asia
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: South Korea

A sumptuous, epic tale of forbidden love, social uprising, royal intrigue and betrayal - where tensions are settled with deadly duels. Yong-gyun Kim follows up The Red Shoes with decidedly more traditional fair - but does he bring the same verve and style?

Set in 19th century Korea, The Sword With No Name tells the story of star-crossed lovers Moo-myoung and Ja-young, the latter destined to become the Empress Myeongseong. Haunted by a love that can never cross the class divide in a Korea depicted as rife with social and religious upheaval, the two are torn apart by fate.

Until the determined Moo-myoung schemes his way into the Royal Palace, becoming a guard in order to stay close to her. But the Empress is bound by her courtly duty, and can never reciprocate his feelings. But, when the royal family’s enemies mount an assault on the throne, will fate bring the two soul mates back together? Or will it finally tear them apart for good?

To begin this review with a summary, The Sword With No Name has all the essential ingredients for an engrossing film, but none of them are mixed quite right. A visually pleasing historical epic, its arresting action sequences don’t grip as much as they should, thanks to some crippling narrative flaws, and a schizophrenic tone.

The inconsistency of tone is best exemplified within the character arc of Moo-myoung (Cho) - the protagonist goes from hapless, pratfalling goof into a cocksure, steely-eyed young man confident enough to walk into a royal household with - apparently - the eviscerated corpse of the tiger he killed for reasons that are never quite clear. Showing an emotional trauma from the events on the film’s opening only when the filmmakers deem it appropriate, his character seems more inconsistent than complex and contradictory and, as such, the film demands a lot of its audience to invest in him during an opening act that is at best sluggish, at worst downright dull.

His - and the script’s - inconsistency is displayed clearest in an early turning point that sees him attempt to rescue the woman he loves in a very sombre scene, only to be followed with a light-hearted, comical depiction of how she dominates his thoughts, the image of her turning up in river water to annoy him. Against the backdrop of religious conflict and serious emotional stakes, scenes like this prevent an audience from fully engaging in the story.

And a curious story it is. Opening with a genuinely unsettling execution of Korean Christians, serving as a social backdrop, as well as prologue for Moo-myoung, the film stakes its claim to the tag of ‘worthy epic’. But all too soon, this dark and harrowing tone is thrown off as the film’s main plot picks up at a gentler pace, as it moves into a somewhat charming courtship sequence between a grown Moo-myoung, now working as a boatman, and a noble girl, Ja-young (Su-Ae). But as the film takes its time setting up its characters and conflict, it is unable to decide what type of film it wants to be - serious historical epic, or heart-rending romance. It succeeds at neither, and coats everything in the grandest melodrama.

Characters profess and act on grand, epic emotions in a story that whips through its developments very quickly. With everything feeling underdeveloped, the film alienates its audience right when it needs them to care.

For a plot that’s relatively simple and straightforward, the first half narrative is oddly confusing, with apparently nameless characters making plot-altering decisions for reasons that are not always entirely clear. For example, a sequence that sees Moo-myoung venture to the royal household to challenge a presumably nefarious elite soldier to a duel somehow results in him wilfully testing a bullet-proof vest, with nary a mention of why. The two sequences play as though the film has been hastily reedited, out of order, and serves to further disengage the viewer.

Furthermore, as the film builds to the end of its second act, the audience is left pondering some perplexing questions: why has the king set Moo-myoung the challenge that he has? Why is Moo-myoung suddenly fighting an army all by himself? Whose side is everyone on? What is the ‘bigger picture’ conflict really about? The latter may be clear to those who know their Korean history; but the uninitiated may scratch holes in their heads.

And this is a real shame, because it takes the shine off where the film does succeed - visually. The Sword With No Name is stunningly designed, and gorgeously shot, with some of the better-looking CGI-aided fight sequences in Asian cinema for some time. Though not always convincing in terms of realism, Yong-gyun Kim fuses anime, video game and wuxia visual influences into one unique, satisfyingly impressionistic and dream-like style all of his own. It is the film’s major strength, and ensures that it is always easy on the eye. This film packs a potent, but ultimately wayward, punch.

It’s romance isn’t especially romantic, and its political intrigue is not particularly interesting, but The Sword With No Name is a classy production, rescued by some nifty dust-ups. JN

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