Shadowless Sword is an okay movie that’s forever just on the threshold of becoming a far better one, but don’t let that keep you from seeing it. According to a formula that critic Pauline Kael once laid down, the movies are so rarely ever good art that if you can’t appreciate good entertainment when it does come, you’re fighting a losing battle. This applies universally, regardless of genre, language or country of origin, and I’ve seen plenty of movies from abroad that fulfill this dictum. Shadowless Sword may not be art, but it does what it does well enough that grousing about it not shooting high or far enough may be misplaced.
Like Japan and the samurai genre, Korea has become a font of movies that draw on its own violent and colorful past. Sword is set in the 7th century, one of Korea’s more divisive and turbulent eras, during which kingdoms routinely invaded each other, leaders were assassinated and (according to this film, anyway) sword-wielding heroes routinely defied the laws of physics to defend their comrades and their honor. The film opens with one such assassination / flaunting of gravity, the death of the Balhae clan leader at the hands of the Dongranguk’s brute squad, the appropriately-named “Killer Blade Army”. Their freakish looks and outlandish weapons steal every scene they have, and made me reflect on how a good adventure is often only as interesting as its villain (if only because they’re the ones who force the heroes to be heroes).
Yeon, a member of the elite guard from her kingdom, sets out to bring back the alienated
Prince Jeong-yeon — the better to lead their armies. Too bad he doesn't want the job.
The death of their leader forces the rest of the clan’s hand: Now they have to find someone else to lead their armies, the better to retake the land they were displaced from. The only likely candidate is a disgraced nobleman, Prince Jeong-yeon (Seo-jin Lee), now living under an assumed name in exile, and not in a mood to lead anybody’s armies. They send a member of their elite guard, a woman named Yeon (So-yi Yoon) to find Jeong-yeon and convince him to come back. Yeon is easily the most interesting character in the whole film, forming a quiet and strong center to each of her scenes, and over time she wears down Jeong-yeon’s resistance to his past. The fact that someone is trying to kill them every ten minutes also helps them make up their minds pretty quickly, too.
None of this stuff is remotely revolutionary. But the movie acts as if it was, and some of that enthusiasm is bound to be contagious even if you’ve seen it all before. What Sword also gets right — and what most other movies that fall into this category doesn’t — is that it sees its characters as personalities, and gives them motivations and behaviors to match. Even if such things are only presented in miniature, better that it comes in miniature than not at all — better, certainly, than in a movie like another Korean sword-fight epic, Duellist. That film couldn’t even make up its own mind if this was all serious or homage or parody or what, and simply settled for all of the above, with irritatingly confused results. Sword never wants to do anything more than entertain, which is fine, as long as you know that going in.
I’m of two minds about the exaggerated, wire- and FX-assisted fighting style featured in just about every third or fourth martial-arts movie these days. They call it wuxia, or “flying people”, and it always seems to teeter uncomfortably between being inspired and being self-indulgent. Shadowless Sword throws out a massive number of scenes like this, but also makes up for the fundamental dippiness of the wuxia look by having it all happen to people we care about. The other way to make it seem not so foolish is to give us a personality that we identify with offscreen — Jackie Chan, or Jet Li — but Korea has no star of that magnitude (at least not yet), so they will have to settle for another approach.
But the movie does have great fun with its action, and even though this sort of thing is virtually exhausted there are still changes to be run on it. I had to smile at one fight that happens both above and below water — we all know that gravity and conventional physics can be mostly disregarded underwater, and the movie has far more fun with that than it probably should. Another repeated trope put a smirk on my face despite its absurdity (or, heck, maybe because of it): when one of the bad guys unleashes his ultimate attack, his adversary doesn’t just die, he explodes. If that isn’t enough, they later one-up it: when another character is attacked in this fashion, he staves off certain death for a bit with a little well-placed acupressure (which, to someone just walking in, looks more or less like he’s beating himself up).
Shadowless Sword's wild and stylish wuxia action sequences come close to scraping the bottom of the
barrel, but are still inventive enough to keep your interest, and it happens to people we are interested in.
If the credits are to be trusted, Sword was a cross-the-ocean co-production between New Line Cinema in the USA and CJ Entertainment in Korea. Curiously, no domestic release of the film has turned up yet; maybe New Line gambled on the possibility that the movie could be a Crouching Tiger / Flying Daggers type of hit, and decided not to go with that. Sword is no classic, but what it does it does well, and I’d sooner see a dozen more movies like this than another Adam Sandler vehicle or TV-series remake.