Moo-myeong (played by Cho Seung-woo) is a vagabond who's quite good with his rather awkwardly proportioned fish head cutting sword. His excellent fighting skills make Moo-myeong a valuable hire in the assassin's trade, but it's an offhand job with Myeong-seong (played by Soo Ae) that ends up permanently changing his life. Moo-myeong suddenly decides that he's good enough for bigger or better things. In reality, of course, he just wants to get closer to Myeong-seong, who mostly reciprocates his affections though she's just married the king.
"The Sword with No Name" doesn't really get into who these characters are, except as opposite ends of a doomed love affair set against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Korea. This is a bad time to be Korean, let alone Koreans in a forbidden love story. Even as Myeong-seong strives to open Korea up with the Western world on equitable terms, local politics derail her plans. And the Japanese are all too willing to take Korea's more archaic quaint social taboos and spin it into their own power trip.
This movie isn't really that concerned with history, though. The backdrop mainly exists to establish the fact that Moo-myeong and Myeong-seong are doomed in spite of their good intentions and abilities because, well, that's just how history works. Their relationship has the same basic undertones as Lancelot and Guinevere, and the story as a whole has that same mythical feel to it. Their love is compelling, even as it's obviously a bad idea.
Well, maybe compelling is going a bit too far. "The Sword with No Name" is corny, and the characters fall into pretty simplistic archetypes. This isn't a problem for the kind of story that the movie wants to tell, but from a cynical perspective the proceedings get to be pretty dorky. The music is overwrought, and the cinematography demands we see this as an amazing love story. The trouble is the depth's just not there.
The tone is broken up at several points with epic swordfights. There's a lot of computer graphics here, and yes, they are obvious enough that it needs to be pointed out. But for those who don't aren't snobby about that kind of thing, the fights are pretty great. There's heavy use of silhouettes, and clear stylized backgrounds do a lot to empathize the aforementioned mythos. The fights are never quite implausible enough to break suspension of disbelief, and yet at the same time, the movie is so steeped in its romance that this sense of reality is a bit of a disadvantage. We can't have a fantastic story that also touches upon Korea's failure to adapt to the modern age in near history. That would just be weird.
Still, considering the kind of narrative it is, I suppose "The Sword with No Name" accomplishes all its goals. It's a large scale love story played out in an epic period of Korean history with decent enough battles to distract from the other parts. The story doesn't always make sense, but it's easy enough to follow mainly because the goals are so unambitious. For the viewer who's only wants those kinds of basic demands yet, the movie is a success. But outside the moment, there's really not much here to linger on in the abscess of memory.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon and YESASIA
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Sword With No Name" + Giveaway"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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