Sword with No Name, The
Director - Kim Yong-Gyun
Cast - Soo-Ae, Cho Seung-Woo
Country of Origin - Korea
MSRP - $29.98
Distributor - Funimation
Reviewer - Richard A. Becker
The Film (3/5)
“I fought through Korea with a Sword With No Name/it felt good to be out of the rain…” Yeah, yeah, old song reference… anyway, I’m not going to kid you that I’m a scholar of either Korean history (since this is more or less a historical fiction piece) or Korean literature (it’s based on a book, and I haven’t read it), so I can only critique this film in terms of its place in global pop culture. Seen in the context of modern epic action movies coming out of China, the United States and the rest of the world, SWORD WITH NO NAME is solid—but rather standard—fare. It slow-mos when it’s supposed to slow-mo, the music swells up big and hopeful when it’s supposed to swell up big and hopeful, and it generally does a creditable job of going through the motions of a Grand Epic of Romance In Wartime.
Well, apart from the goofy moments of Flying Action Heroes In CG-land. Don’t worry, I’m not grabbing this bully platform to rail against you damn kids and your CGI effects (not exactly). All I’m saying is that there are a number of fight scenes that take the story out of the realm of a Hollywood kinda-real, kinda-not history, and straight into the outrageous realm of things that just couldn’t ever happen anywhere, anytime, anyhow. And it doesn’t actually matter if those scenes are fun or well-executed (they actually are), because they just happen without regard for what they do to the rest of the film. Which is to make you see the whole thing as an outright fairy tale.
Not that that’s necessarily entirely bad—it worked for Zack Snyder’s entertainingly eye-rolling 300, which shows us a Western fable that absolutely never happened outside an overwrought imagination. But it’s unfortunate that the leads and other cast members really seem to take the whole enterprise more seriously than that, which sets their work at odds with the direction of the film.
Soo Ae turns in a bittersweet, lyrical performance as the embattled Empress Min of the Joseon Dynasty. Struggling to offset Japanese domination of Korea by currying favor with other foreign powers, she plays a dangerous game that soon marks her for death. But she’s not alone in her fight to modernize and liberate her country: A bounty hunter (Moo-Myoung, played with élan by Seung-Woo Cho) who had fallen in love with her years earlier—before her rise to power—has taken it upon himself to defend her against all odds. But can the nameless mercenary avert tragedy when treachery threatens his true love?
It’s all based on facts, but perhaps a little loosely, given just how lyrically it plays out. (A charge we could level at a lot of other historical epics, from BECKET to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to DUEL AT GANRYU ISLAND—and an object lesson in why Akira Kurosawa generally avoided real history to show us things something like historical events.) But it’s a story that’s tailor-made for an actress dubbed Korea’s “Queen of Tears,” and she owns the screen.
The performers in supporting cast all do fine jobs, and the costume design (by Hyun Seob Shim) is sumptuous and evocative. In fact, the production is lushly designed and is grand eye candy. The music is just what you’d expect for this kind of offering, and it’s done very well. In fact, in terms of sheer craftsmanship, SWORD WITH NO NAME really lacks for nothing. Talented director Yong-gyun Kim bobbles visual continuity in a few places, but it doesn’t mar the whole film too much. It’s a strong argument for the Korean film industry having a real place in the world market.
Except for two things. First, the movie does have a certain combination of the unreal (erring a little too much on the side of excessive design and execution, making it all seem fantastical) and the tried-and-true quality of the story. Here is the beautiful, troubled young queen who is served to the end by her faithful, stoic (and conveniently handsome) fighting man. It may be based (more or less) on true events, but it’s still got a whiff of stock to it. The result of somewhat unreal/stagy production and slightly broad, unsurprising storytelling with stock characters makes SWORD WITH NO NAME just a little too usual. It doesn’t cross all the way into becoming a hokey, regionally crowd-pleasing melodrama, but it skates pretty close. Some might excuse that kind of storytelling by insisting that “it could’ve happened that way ‘over there,’” but in world cinema you do things by a world standard. SWORD WITH NO NAME is head and shoulders above a lot of other world film entries—it’s nowhere near as cheesy as a Bollywood musical, as soppy-sentimental as an old TORA-SAN or M. HULOT comedy, or as formulaic as an American SyFy Channel film—but it lacks sophistication.
On the other hand, if you’re in the market for a well-made, romantic historical fiction adventure with plenty of action and intrigue, this one will go well with your popcorn. So to borrow a phrase, “thumbs up to SWORD WITH NO NAME.”
The Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Mix and and English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix sounded good to me (yes, there’s an English dubbed version you can choose instead of trying to keep up with the English subtitles option, but if you go for that, don’t complain that their lips don’t match their voices—it may come as a surprise to some, but speaking Korean and speaking English requires two different sets of mouth movements). The visual technical info is that it’s in 1080p High Definition. I can honestly tell you that it looks and sounds crisp, clear and quite beautiful. I’m not the princess and the pea of technical standards (I still watch things on VHS, laserdisc, Flash video, etc., after all), but it certainly seems to present everything in gorgeous color and sharpness as far as I’m concerned.
The DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack is not particularly impressive in terms of extras, as they’ve only got a celebrity interview, some behind the scenes footage and some trailers for this film and other Funimation releases. It certainly seems like another piece of evidence that the great days of made-for-DVD-release documentaries and other juicy extras are over.
Honestly, fairly soapy but with good spectacle and action along the way. That’s not a cultural thing, either, since the international standard for historical action-adventure is pretty soap opera-ish (with swelling violins, “I WILL FIND YOU!!” dialogue, slow-motion flower petals falling, etc., from the USA to the UK to Japan to… everywhere). It’s solid and workmanlike, and I bet the actual historical events are… vaguely like the movie. But hey, if I wanted real history, I’d go watch the History Channel, right? Wait, no, that’s where I’d go to see talk about alien pyramid-builders and Hitler…