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Shadowless Sword Dulled

2006/11/01 Source

A middling period actioner under the shadow of yesteryear's Hong Kong cinema

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

With financial successes of the politically muddled but pretty-to-look-at "Hero" and the exquisitely spiritual "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon" in North America, Hollywood studios have perked up their antennae trying to locate the next East Asian chop-socky flick that can make bucketloads of money for them. Following the footsteps of Miramax and Sony Classics, New Line Cinema has ventured into the martial arts territory by co-producing "Shadowless Sword" with Taewon Entertainment.

uestion that popped into my mind, as the clipped-film logo of New Line flashed by as the movie opened, was whether the American producers had had a chance to see "Bichunmoo (2000)", the debut film of director Kim Yeong-joon. Director Kim, armed with a thoroughly trite, culturally featureless love triangle backstory, created what appears to be a blatant pastiche of a '90s Hong Kong period piece, complete with the actors spinning crazily like whipped tops, but with one difference: the whole shenanigans were presented as deadly serious. Lugubrious and dour when it's not unintentionally hilarious, "Bichunmoo" is not the kind of film a potential investor finds inspiring, unless of course the said investor is looking for a sullen copy of a Hong Kong wu-xia pian. Of course, in this case the logical question one must ask is, why not go for the real thing by giving the dough to, say, Tsui Hark?

At any rate, Director Kim was able to draw upon American dollars to upgrade the production design, hire a bigger cast and extras, and location-shoot in China for his second martial arts epic. The surprise is that his sophomore effort, while by no means a stirring masterpiece or a work of art imbued with an original vision, is a considerable improvement over "Bichunmoo".

The plotline is par for the course for a film of its type, with the focus this time on a young female warrior's quest to protect and, as the plot progresses, rehabilitate a Po-hai (Barhae) prince, disenchanted with court politics and making living as an outlaw. Some eyebrows may be raised by the film's insistence that Po-hai was a "Korean" nation "invaded" by Kitans, but this is just a fodder for exotic martial arts setting. By and large, "Shadowless Sword" manages to skirt political squabbles over ancient history of East Asia. That is, until the final reel, where So-sam gives a supposedly crowd-pleasing patriotic speech to his troops, seemingly intended for young Korean viewers.

It is toothache-inducingly interminable and has all the earmarks of a second-rate recruitment video for U.S. marines. The film noticeably sags in the middle and, as usual, quite a chunk of dialogue are awful, whether in original Korean or rendered into indifferent English subs. My favorite line: a scowling warrior says to his opponent in one of their tense stand-offs, "I know your body well". Oh really?

Shin Hyun-joon ("Face", "Barefoot Ki-bong"), the hero in "Bichunmoo", plays a villain this time around. Which is good, since Shin, for all indications a good actor, is simply not convincing as a heroic figure in an epic period piece, tragically conceived or not. It's like casting Tim Roth to play Eliott Ness in "The Untouchables". Thankfully, he is more believable as a villain, a creep with an inflated ego. (One word of advice to Shin: stay away from martial arts films!) While Lee Seo-jin (well known to Asian fans due to the hit TV dramas "Damo" and "Phoenix")'s mannerisms are sometimes inappropriately "contemporary", he manages to convey cynicism and callousness without being a complete jerk. (It helps that he cannot scream "Yah! Yah!" to a female character the way a Korean man in a contemporary drama or movie would, because of the period setting)

The movie's real assets are Yoon So-yi ("Arahan") as the warrior So-ha and newcomer Lee Ki-yong as the villainess. While not very articulate actors, they nonetheless project physical grace and sexiness rather lacking in male leads. The duel between the two, tied to each other by a stretch of red silk, is one of the highlights of the film's action set pieces.

Speaking of action choreography, there are a few nice set-ups displaying ingenuity and at least hard work, although several good visual ideas are not followed through (For instance, the final duel between So-sam and Hwa-pyong is briefly overlain with 3-D animation). The film probably could have done without the silly "Fist of the North Star"-like "delayed death" gimmick, too. Location photography definitely helps the movie retain a classy outlook, although the 'scope-size visuals inadvertently highlight weird touches like really heavy, almost pink, powdery make-up and kohl-like heavy eye-liners on main characters. (Shin Hyun-joon looks like Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean" on more than one occasions)

"Shadowless Sword" is a serviceable example of its kind, a "de-nationalized" wu-xia pian. Spurred by TV's success with historical dramas such as "Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)" and "Damo", Korean film industry will no doubt continue to explore large-scale period pieces in the future. Whether they can actually produce a movie as appealing as "Crouching Tiger", with a uniquely Korean take on the universal themes such as unrequited love and meaninglessness of heroism, remains to be seen. Although entertaining enough as it is, "Shadowless Sword" cannot be considered a step forward in this sense. Perhaps regrettably for the creative talent behind it, the film's qualities are best appreciated by those nostalgically inclined for the formulaic martial arts cinema of yesteryear.

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