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'Shadowless Sword' packs martial art, yet lacks historical identity

2005/11/17 Source

A romance set in an ancient Korean kingdom. Lots of high-quality martial-art action scenes. Top Korean actors. A large-scale shooting in mainland China. When director Kim Yeong-joon put together these elements for his second film, even a major U.S. film distributor New Line Cinema was impressed.

So New Line Cinema decided to join the project for "Shadowless Sword", which became the first-ever foreign film to receive the investment of the American film distributor.

The epic-style film is now set to be released in the United States early next year. Robert Remley, senior vice president of New Line Cinema, said at a preview on Monday that he expects the film to be widely screened in the American market, showing great optimism about its commercial potential.

The primary appeal for Westerners, of course, is its Asian (specifically Chinese) atmosphere. Intricate sets built up in mainland Chinese cities lend authentic feel while eye-catching wire action scenes where characters are literally flying all over are likely to arrest the attention of Western moviegoers interested in Asia.

But the cultural and historical sword of "Shadowless Sword" cuts both ways. It may be a well-made martial-art romance film, but it cannot be classified as a movie which seriously tackles the turbulent chapter of the ancient Korean history.

In the movie, the year is 926 and Balhae, a Korean kingdom founded near Jilin in Manchuria in 698, is facing a collapse in the face of the relentless attacks from the Khitan.

All the crown princes except for Dae Jeong-hyeon (Lee Seo-jin) are assassinated by the Khitan, and Balhae people have little hope for their country unless prince Jeong-hyeon, who was expelled to a remote Chinese city due to the political infighting, returns miraculously.

The task is assigned to Yeon So-ha (Yoon So-yi), one of Balhae's top-rated female warriors. She finally meets Jeong-hyeon but the prince is not that honorable person she has expected. Jeong-hyeon is keen on solely protecting his own life, even using a variety of low-level tricks, but doesn't care about the fate of the suffering Balhae. At least not at this point.

Meanwhile, Gun Hwa-pyeong (Shin Hyun-joon), a chieftain of the Khitan, and his female aide Mae Young-ok (Lee Ki-yong) are ordered to find and kill the Balhae prince who is feared to give a false hope to the declining Korean kingdom.

It turns out that Hwa-pyeong was a former Balhae citizen. Somehow, his family got involved in a bloody political struggle, and he deserted his nation and converted into a Khitan in order to get revenge for the downfall of his family.

In all fairness, the action scenes are breathtakingly face-paced and filled with seemingly risky motions that heighten suspense and tension. Although some might view the aerial running of the main characters as cartoonish, the overall effects of those action scenes spice up the otherwise too straight storyline.

Actor Lee, who rose to stardom with a serialized television drama with a similar martial-art romance theme here, seems to have gotten the gist of the role which goes through a gradual transformation. Lee's acting is full of confidence and even his change from a selfish merchant into a noble prince is believable.

Actresses Yoon and Lee also play the key female characters with graceful styles in a way that makes it entertaining to watch their constant martial-art showdown.

"Shadowless Sword" follows the genre formula faithfully. Much of the film relies on colorful and awe-inspiring action scenes that are speedy and powerful. The storyline is simple and understandable, even in the eyes of foreigners who have little knowledge about the ancient Korea.

However, this blockbuster film, which cost 8 billion won to produce and aims the international film market, fails to reflect the Korean angle. Balhae, or a kingdom known as Bohai for Chinese historians, is part of the Korean history. But the movie does not show any sign of Korean-ness: all the costumes, settings and landscapes are largely Chinese.

Perhaps, Western viewers may not distinguish between Chinese and Korean culture - no wonder a host of American movies put in Vietnamese or Chinese props and insist they are Korean - but it is questionable why director Kim does not care about putting in some Korean elements, especially at a time when the Korean Wave is sweeping across Asia and elsewhere.

The history of Balhae, which historically declared itself the successor to Goguryeo (clearly Korean) Kingdom, is now one of the thorny areas where Korean historians are fighting with Chinese counterparts for its historical identity (Chinese side claims Balhae's history as its own).

It is a pity that while the nationalistic theme of the movie glories the ancient Koreans' efforts to fight off the attacks of the Chinese tribe, "Shadowless Sword" seems as Chinese as it can be.

By Yang Sung-jin

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