I am the go-to guy when it comes to movies about flying Asians with bizarre powers and a tendency to decapitate first and ask questions later. I’ve been watching the Chinese do it right for decades with awesome epics like “Once Upon a Time in China”
, “The Tai-Chi Master”
, and many more (many of which also admittedly starring Jet Li
) too countless to name here. While the Japanese mainly are known for taking their sword bearing dudes more seriously in their films, occasionally they too have gone the crazy fun route with stuff like the blood-drenched "Lone Wolf and Cub"
series and the totally insane superhero-ish "Azumi
." "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword"
is the South Korean attempt to make an epic, vaguely historical, crazy sword movie (even though it was filmed in China) and it succeeds, sort of. I'm not sure it ended up being epic and it's only historical in that sort of biblical "it kinda happened" way, but it definitely has lots of swords and crazy people.
After a historical explanation scrawl that meant nothing to me, something about warfare, kingdoms, unrest, yada, yada, we discover that the evil guys want to wipe out the family line of the good guys and so have sent a hot bad-ass chick named Mae
and her goon squad after the last remaining prince, Prince Jeonghyun
, who previously had been exiled out of the kingdom to a small town. The remainder of the royal family get their own hot bad-ass chick, Yeon Soha
, to go grab the reluctant princeling and escort him safely back to their encampment. Princey, still pissed about all the exiling business and nicely set up as a buyer of stolen goods in his town, doesn’t really want to go but as crazy chicks start flying around, he sees the wisdom of making a hasty retreat and follows his new protector on a stealthy, dangerous road back to safety.
When movies start off with a bang like The Legend of the Shadowless Sword
, it’s hard not to get excited right off the bat. Within a few short minutes, people are breaking the laws of physics like they were only optional in the first place while chopping the more grounded type of footsoldiers into bulgogi
. Blood sprays, heads fly, Cyrus
I know that all that SOUNDS like an awesome setup. Sure enough I was thrilled with the bloody beginning while still noticing that something didn't quite seem right. I felt like I should be enjoying this more. As the film went along I started to see where some of the problems lay that even made the decapitations kind of yawn worthy. A budget too small for an “epic” film hinders the production at many points, to be sure. It's not tragically under budget but the cheaper style video look of it certainly doesn't help matters. This is an afterthought criticism next to the seeming Korean cinematic need to borrow as heavily as possible from other films. There are times it works, and times it doesn’t. In "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword"
, mostly it doesn’t and when it doesn't all it does is remind you how much better the films it's stealing from are.
The soundtrack thinks they are remaking “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”
and one can see why the composer might think that what with the lame attempt at a doomed love story both between Prince Jeonghyun and his Soha and between the evil Mae and her mustachioed boss named Gun
. There’s a good deal of the kind of flying/jumping that is ever present in Chinese pseudo-historical cinema but unlike CTHD
, the violence is more bloody, more pronounced and more surreal. Bad-ass dudes and chicks always have some sort of superheroic “technique”
that is almost never discussed or explained, only happens to come in handy when the plot is in needing of a reason why dude 1 can defeat dude 2. There’s a scene where a guy is cut in half and then explodes for some reason. Talk about overkill. What, there was some fear the guy still might be okay? Better use the magic explody skill just in case on both halves? You'd think even so this would be cool, but I was just left scratching my head.
I can and have forgiven much worse transgressions than any of that in many many Asian films, but the unforgivable thing here is boredom. The action, despite the director's intentions, only comes across as ho-hum most of the time. In an accompanying “character introductions”
featurette on the disk, it’s revealed that the director, Young-jun Kim
, is an experienced martial artist which I found to be surprising. Perhaps his cinematic lack of experience is why (he had made one other film at this point simply titled, "Flying Warriors"
), but most of the action is relatively uninventive and lacks any real kind of oomph or crunch that a film like this HAS to have. Nor does it achieve the type of graceful dance-like beauty seen in Crouching Tiger
or any of the other films it unsuccessfully tries to ape at points. Without a reason to go out of your way to watch the action, we’re stuck with the plot and that doesn’t leave one with much worthwhile either.
Muddled confusing character motivations, unconvincing relationship changes between the characters, an almost completely unsympathetic idiot of a main character...what is supposed to be keeping me awake here? If the intention alone to make a cool, stylish and violent film was enough for me to enjoy a film like this, I’d own a copy of Ecks Vs Sever.
You can scream "It's exploitation, you just don't get it"
all you want. We've reached a point in cinema where even exploitation has to live up to a certain level of quality (of a sort) to be worth your time.
I'm afraid that "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword"
goes down for me as a “almost-ran.”
It’s just good enough to be worth a look if you’re really into flying magical asian chicks or curious about where the Korean cinema is going, not worth your time at all otherwise. As hard as it is for me to imagine there are people out there who don’t
spend a good part of their day thinking about flying magical asian chicks, I have to try to understand that I’m living in an insane world.
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