Ever since the relatively recent successes of Asian swordplay epics like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "House of Flying Daggers," we have seen more such movies come and go. Now, from the newly rejuvenated South Korean film industry comes this 2005 entry, "Muyeong geom" ("The Shadowless Sword," "Superfighters," or the DVD title New Line have given it here, "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword"). Although it has its moments, compared to the finest the genre has to offer, "Shadowless Sword" is ordinary at best.
As with most of these things, the tale takes place in the ancient past, and characters and events appear based on myth and legend. Therefore, expect not only a good deal of sword fighting and arrow shooting but the usual assortment of beautiful women, good and bad, a dashing hero, a venomous villain, and various hangers on, all jumping, kicking, running, dancing, and flying through their scenes in highly choreographed fantasy ballets.
The star of the show is a lovely young woman named Yeon Soha, played by Yoon Soy. I am going to use the names of the characters as they appear on the keep case because the names appear differently in the movie's closing credits, differently again in the disc's featurettes, and differently once more at IMDb. English translations can be hard on Asian names.
Anyway, Yeon is a First Officer in the country of Belhae's military and a top warrior around 927 A.D. It's at that time that we take up the story, about a year after the Georan army invaded Belhae, captured its capital, and started systematically killing off its royal family. There is only one Prince of Belhae left, Dae Jung Hyun (Lee Seo Jin), and he's in hiding. Yeon's job is to find the Prince and return him safely to Belhae to lead his people against the evil Georans. Fortunately, she's very good at her job.
Hot on the Prince's tail and eager to assassinate him is the Killer Blade Army, a group of traitors to Belhae who are now in the employ of the Georans. Their leader is Gun Hwa-Pyung (Shin Hyun Joon), who, along with his deadly, cold-blooded female sidekick Mae Youngok (Lee Ki Yong), heads out to assassinate the only surviving Prince.
The plot, then, is about Yeon and the Prince trying to get back to Belhae before Gun and Mae and their Killer Blade cohorts can find and eliminate them. Not as easy as it sounds, though, since the Prince doesn't want to return to his homeland, nor does he want to get killed. The story line allows director Kim Young Jun ("Bichunmoo" or "Flying Warriors") a chance to exercise a little imagination in creating a wealth of preposterous, though overly familiar, action sequences.
OK, the first thing you have to do is get over the movie's rather ponderous title, as well as the business of the "Killer Blade Army." To suggest that these names might be just a little corny would probably upset fanciers of the genre, so let's just say you have to have a certain predisposition toward overwrought melodramatics to appreciate the goings on, even in the naming of things.
On the plus side, the movie has all the usual pageantry and busyness on screen that one expects of such movies, although the budget wasn't quite big enough, it seems, for massive armies, whether they're CGI or otherwise. Still, the film is colorful, and the director moves the action along at an acceptable pace. There is rarely any lallygagging with romantic entanglements or interpersonal relationships. Mostly, we find a little talk here and there to establish character backgrounds and to explain what's happening at any given time, and then it's on to the next fight sequence. What's more, the scenery, costumes, and landscapes are attractive, and the cinematography is appealing. So, the movie is quite nice on the eyes.
On the minus side, once beyond the scenery, costumes, and landscapes, there isn't much more than the sword fighting, and that gets old fast, especially when the movie doesn't present it any more creatively than we've seen it done dozens of times before. I mean, how often have we watched the supercool hero (or heroine) turn his or her back on the villains, outnumbered five or ten or twenty to one, strike a pose for a moment, wait for their advance, and then wipe them out with a few kicks and swats? I guess we can thank "Enter the Dragon" for popularizing the trend.
Moreover, we also get the usual high-wire flying so common to Asian swordplay films since "Couching Tiger." People--heroes and villains--actually fly through the air. Now, I know these movements should remind us that it's mythological fantasy after all, but in "Shadowless Sword" the flying looks too literal and too awkward to accept metaphorically. Instead of our marveling at the aerodynamic acrobatics, we get distracted, the mind wanders, and we begin to wonder things like why these folks don't travel by air entirely instead of trudging along on foot. No, you can't see the wires, but it's close.
On top of that, and also in the tradition of Asian swordplay pictures, the director injects some dubious comic relief into some of the combat scenes. I have no idea why. I suppose it's just a custom; but it surely breaks the mood, and it raises the question of corniness; not a good sign.
The filmmakers appear more concerned with theatrics, affected character posturing, and special effects than plot coherence (or any plot at all) or characterization. An underwater fight sequence comes off best, but most of the movie is not as fanciful. In short, the movie doesn't have the epic sweep of "Hero," the magic of "Crouching Tiger," or any genuinely charismatic stars like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, or Jackie Chan to pull its wholly routine plot along. Even the soundtrack has a nostalgic, 1950s' or 60s' throwback air about it that reinforces the movie's commonness.
Sadly, for all its earnest intentions and beauteous good looks, "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword" is mainly fight and run, run and fight, and fight some more. It's definitely for devotees of the genre only.
For a standard-definition release, the picture quality is mostly fine. The image size stretches to the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, presented in anamorphic widescreen. Medium and long shots are a bit on the soft, fuzzy side, while close-ups are decent, if not always as revealing as they might be. Colors are realistic, with reasonably deep black levels, yet darker areas of the screen get a touch murky. Contrasts seem heightened, giving the picture a slightly glossy, glassy appearance. The screen is mainly clean, with a light, natural film grain complementing textures as best they can.
New Line offer a choice of three audio formats: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. None of them is particularly noteworthy, the DTS track about four or five decibels louder than the Dolby Digital, thus effecting a more dramatic sound if not level matched. Once you even out the two tracks, they both produce adequate clarity, dynamics, and frequency response, with the DTS track seeming to generate a tad stronger mid bass and sounding a bit more forward and open. To my ears, the Dolby Digital was a little smoother, though. Neither soundtrack delivers a lot of information to the rear channels, but what does go there adds to the general excitement of things.
The disc includes an honest assortment of extras, though none of them of any great distinction. First, there are three character introductions--interviews with the stars--lasting about seventeen minutes. Next, there is a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette--the standard fare. After that is a picture gallery and a music video, the latter with scenes from the film in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Things conclude with access to a digital copy of the movie; sixteen scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen international trailer in anamorphic widescreen; Korean as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.
If you enjoy Asian sword-fighting pictures, "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword" might be your ticket. It's certainly got enough swordplay, adventure, and special effects to keep fans occupied. It's just that if you're not a die-hard devotee of the form, it can seem like the same old, tired thing that we've already seen a dozen times before, and often better. Now, many of the scenes are quite attractive, so maybe if New Line offered it in high-definition picture and sound, it might make the movie worth a closer look. However, that prospect does not appear in the offing.