The Legend of the Shadowless Sword
Directed By: Kim Young-jun
Starring: Shin Hyeon-jun, Yoon So-yi, Lee Seo-jin, Lee Ki-yong
Legend of the Shadowless Sword is a Korean take on the popular Chinese Wuxia genre. Based on an incident in Korean history but incorporating fantastical elements as well, it tells the story of Dae Jeong-hyun (Lee Seo-jin), a prince of the Balhae royal family living in exile who unwittingly becomes the heir to the kingdom when warring Georan forces successfully kill off everyone ahead of him in succession. The remaining Balhae loyalists quickly send master swordswoman Yeon So-ha (Yoon) to both retrieve and protect the reluctant heir. The Georan's in turn enlist the Killer Blade Army, led by the bloodthirsty Gun Hwa-pyung (Shin) and his beautiful and deadly chief lieutenant, Mae-Yung-ok (Lee Ki-yong) to capture or kill the prospective fledgling King. As the pursuit plays out, we learn more about the four main characters and their relationships to each other through flashbacks.
The plot is simplicity itself, really being not much more than a chase/road movie involving familiar mythological archetypes. Drawing an analogy to the most popular modern mythology, the character of Seo-jin is something like a composite of both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, starting as a disreputable black marketer and moving inexorably (if not always convincingly) towards his destiny as a warrior and leader of men. The filmmakers never really make an effort to interject anything surprising or original into the proceedings, which prevents the film from approaching greatness. Its other major weakness is its relatively under drawn supporting characters. If the four leads represent archetypes, then every other character in the film is more like a stereotype. The village where Seo-jin is living in exile under the assumed name of So-sam seems to be populated almost exclusively by smoking hot women and foppishly effeminate men with distractingly fake facial hair. (Come to think of it, I can understand why he would choose to be exiled there.) The Georan leaders who enlist the Killer Blade Army and the loyal aged warrior who provides assistance to Seo-jin and So-ha later in the film also seem to be characters straight from central casting.
Getting those shortcomings out of the way brings us to the film's main strengths, which are its fight scenes and production design. Director Kim Young-jun shot much of the film in China using experienced Hong Kong stunt teams. The fight scenes feature lots of wire work as with recently popular Chinese Wuxia films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. The action sequences set themselves apart from those successful crossover Wuxia films by using a very fast cutting editorial style combined with representations of extreme trauma including explosive wounds and multiple simultaneous decapitations. A nice variety is maintained in the staging of the fantastical fight scenes, whether through placing them in novel settings such as an extended underwater sequence, or just approaching them in novel ways, such as when a graceful battle between So-ha and Ki-yong is intercut with a near street brawl between a sword-wielding Seo-jin and a Killer Blade Army henchman wielding a giant mace.
From a design standpoint, including both sets and costumes, the film is very beautiful to look at, with excellent use of color and tremendous detail. The impressive costumes are occasionally undermined by the very theatrical looking wigs and fake facial hair employed by the make-up department, but not fatally so. Kim Young-jun also gets a tremendous amount of production value out of the mountainous Chinese locations standing in for fourth century AD Korea.
The film is presented on DVD in its 2.4:1 theatrical aspect ratio via a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer. Edge halos were never an issue, and compression was usually top notch, although I did notice a couple instances of blocking in shadowy areas of the screen. Detail was very good, although the limitations of the video and compression were sometimes exposed in wide exterior shots with lots of grass and leaves. Colors were extremely stable and shadow detail was well rendered aside from the extremely infrequent blocking I mentioned above.
Audio options include three tracks in the film's original Korean language, one a 754kbps DTS 5.1 track, another a 384kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital track, and the third a 192 kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic track. The DTS track provided a well balanced sound field that was exploited especially vividly during the films many action sequences. One particular scene in the woods where So-ha and Seo-jin battle a group of assassins including a highly skilled archer is mixed extremely creatively, with arrow sounds originating in the rear surrounds indicating when a new attack is underway before they are visible on screen. The DTS encoding renders the mix with excellent fidelity. A/B-ing with the Dolby Digital revealed a slight fidelity advantage to the DTS track after levels were matched, but nothing extreme. I did not review the 2.0 Pro-Logic track.
Extras consist of a number of brief featurettes, all presented in 4:3 video except when noted below with running times as indicated:
- Character Introductions (17:40 w/"Play All") is a set of sit down promotional interviews with three of the film's lead actors. They can be viewed individually or collectively via a "play all" selection. Curiously, when viewed individually, the interview segments are not time coded, while they are if 'Play All" is selected. In the segment called The Villain Shin Hyeon-jin talks about the nature of his character, Gun Hwa-pyung, his "reggae hair', his wardrobe, the water scene, and working with the Hong Kong stunt team. In the segment called The Companion, Yoon So-yi talks about her character of Yeon So-ha, filming in the mountains of China, being injured by an arrow, the fight scenes, and working with Kim Young-jun. In the segment called The King Lee Seo-jin tals about his character of Dae Jeong-hyun, the films blend of history and fantasy, his favorite scenmes, the water fight, wire work with the Chinese martial arts teams, and working with Kim Young-jun.
- Behind the Scenes (16:9 enhanced video - 6:33) is a montage of on set footage showing fly-on-the-wall footage of various sequences being shot.
- Stills Gallery (1:24) is a video montage of several production stills.
- Music Video (3:50) is a video for a sappy ballad from the film that consists of nothing but a montage of clips from the film
- International Trailer (16:9 enhanced video) is a trailer for the movie with English language narration. It features the original shorter English title for the film, which was simply "Shadowless Sword". I believe "The Legend of…" was added for this R1 DVD release.
The DVD is packaged in a standard Amaray case with an insert containing the code to unlock the digital copy of the film.
Kim Young-jun takes the resurgent Korean film industry into the realm of the Wuxia genre with passable if not remarkable results. The film is worth at least a rental for its sumptuous costumes, production design, and location work as well as some entertaining action sequences that offer plenty of variety, even when derivative of earlier films in the genre. It is marred somewhat by an over simplistic and too familiar plot and supporting characters that are distractingly two dimesional. The film is presented on disc with a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer marred only by some extremely infrequent blocking in dark areas and a slight softness noticeable in highly detailed exterior shots. It sports an excellent DTS track in its original Korean language. Extras include promotional interviews with the cast, short montages of behind the scenes footage and production photographs, a music video, the international trailer, and a digital copy of the film that is only compatible with Windows computers and Microsoft Vista/Playsforsure compliant portable media devices.