Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: The Shadowless Sword (2005)

The Legend of the Shadowless SwordThe Shadowless Sword is a bit of a conundrum.  It has ever appearance of being a classic wuxia film.  A historical epic taken from Chinese history.  Lots of action and swordplay.  Heroes and villians with skills bordering on magic, and at the heart of it all a tragic love story.  So imagine my surprise to find out that despite all this (and being filmed in China to boot), this is actually a Korean movie.  Perhaps this is more common than I thought, but I must say the Koreans did a damned fine job  on this one.

Based on the struggle between the Balhae and Khitan kingdoms in the 10th century, the story concerns the efforts of  Yeon Soha  to bring Prince Jeonghyun back from exile to re-establish the kingdom of Balhae.  Now a petty criminal, Prince Jeonghyun  is the last remaining member of the Royal Family to escape assassination by the notorious Killer Blade Army.  While the Killer Blade Army is working for the Khitan, it's leader has a much more personal grudge against the Royal Family, which sets him at odds with his employers, who wish to use Jeonghyun as a puppet king.

Intrigue and history aside, the movie is a classic quest tale, with  Jeonghjyun and Yeon Soha's journey from exile to the headquarters of the Balhae forces mirroring an internal journey from vagabond to king, and from antogonistic strangers to lovers, all the while fighting, evading and/or fleeing from the Killer Blade Army.

This movie rocks for to major reasons.  Number one is that it looks amazing!  The scenery, the sets, the costumes and the actors are all a treat to watch.  I'm guessing that this morning probably cost a fraction of  a comparable American epic would cost, and yet you could put this side by side with any one of them without shame.  Seriously, it looks that good.  The second reason is that the action is brilliant.  Sure, there's the obligatory wire-work, and sure, there's times when it all becomes a little implausible, but even those moments are done with such conviction and style that they actually work.  The centrepiece fight scenes take place between Yeon Soha and Mae Yung-ok (the second in command of the Killer Blade Army), and they are almost hypnotic to watch--a combination of kung-fu, swordplay, and ballet.

The climax manages to evoke both tragedy and pathos, without straying into maudlin.  More Hero than House Of Flying Daggers, and very satisfying within the story.  If you think that the wuxia genre in the west peaked with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you need to see this movie.  Seriously.  See it.

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