SWORD IN THE MOON (2003) is among South Korea's earliest forays in the Wuxia-Fantasy-Swordplay genre. The film is directed by Ui Seok Kim and has very nice cinematography, simple but brilliant set designs and cool costumes. Being among South Korea’s first attempts in this genre and they make a decent attempt with the film’s atmospheric feel in its battle scenes, and the usual themes about loyalty and honor against the unpredictable hand of fate.
The story tells of the fate of two soldiers. Yun (Jae Hyun Jo) and Choi (Min-su Choi) are best friends who were parts of the elite school; "Sword in the Moon". The cruel hand of fate separates the two. Yun Gyu-Yeob is forced into servitude to a corrupt lord and earns the nickname: "The Human Butcher" because of his brutality in engaging enemies. Choi Ji-Hwan went rogue after being thought killed in combat. Years past, Choi returns cutting a bloody path of murder, aided by beautiful Shi-Yeong (Bo Kyeong Kim, Ardor). The two friends are destined to clash where Yun must decide between loyalty to an oath he took and the loyalty to his friend.
At first impression, one may think the film is full of martial arts swordplay action. The film's premise is the usual themes; loyalty and honor, corrupt authority figures and friendship. "Sword in the Moon" is a movie about assassins so since assassins like to go out at night, most of the action happens after dark. This may be a good or a bad thing since the action may be hidden from plain view for the most part but I rather thought the designs exude a dark and gritty style. (I'm not exactly a big fan of colorful and extravagant sets). Most of the classic betrayals also happen at night, which makes a lot of sense since traitors don't want to be seen. The film is more like a morality play, much of the proceedings are broken down with Yun and Choi's flashbacks, the corrupt manipulations of evil authority. The screenplay may get a little blurry on occasion, but for the experienced movie-watcher, the story isn't all that hard to follow.
The film does have a few surprises. More or less, Jae Hyun Jo's performance eats up the screen with his portrayal of his character. I really liked his musings and finally taking a stand against destiny. Regrettably, Min-su Choi's gets less screen time. The flashbacks do help the film a lot in developing the two leads but it does hamper the film's pace. Also, Shi-Yeong's character (played by stunningly beautiful Bo Kyeong Kim) has so much potential but so underdeveloped. It was a nice touch to have the direction play a methodical approach to her character as she wasn't revealed to be as a woman until she took off her ninja-like garb and takes a bath near a waterfall. It was such an awesome sight to be privy to, that I was so curious about to learn more about her friendship with Choi. Guys like me would be happy to know that for a Korean Wuxia film, Sword in the Moon" does contain a bit of nudity and sex but the way they are shot is not distasteful.
As for the action in the film, there are two battles that occur during the day (thankfully) and all the fights have a blend of Chinese Wuxia somewhat influenced by Samurai swordplay. Even Choi's appearance as an individual with desperate need to wash his hair and his outfit have the anime influence as Jubei Yagyu in "Ninja Scroll". I found this very curious, but I rather enjoyed this play in style. To be sure, there is quite a lot of blood and gruesome beheadings. The only fault that I saw is that the director used the blurry and shaky style he is known for and it does hamper some of the action.
I have mixed feelings about "Sword in the Moon". Despite some flaws in the script and its predictability, I did enjoy it as one of Korea's earliest attempts in Wuxia swordplay-epic genre. However, it will not dethrone "Musa the Warrior" and "Shadowless Sword" as my favorite South Korean swordplay films. The film does have the atmosphere of the terrific "Musa" and "The Gingko Bed"; and it does surpass the abysmal "The Duelist". "Sword in the Moon" is a good film, but it had a lot of potential to have made it so much better; it does come up a little short but the film had enough redeeming qualities to keep it aloft.
RECOMMENDED! For swordplay period fans [3 ½ Stars]