This is a review of the U.S. Bluray release by Funimation so I cannot say if there is an extended cut of this Korean film.
People who have followed my reviews know full well that I am very familiar with the influences of Asian cinema on Western culture and just how much “Wuxia” films I’ve seen through the years. It is no surprise that I would be around to review director Kim Yong-Kyun’s “The Sword with No Name” and it is somewhat surprising just how much people know more about the history of Japan and China than actually knowing a little bit about Korea. The film’s premise of focused on the political life of Empress Myeongseong but she is indeed a legend in her native Korea. This empress had emerged as a unifying figure despite her gender and has opened shape the way for Korea to be seen in the modern world.
The film is quite accurate to some historical records as it shows significant chapters in the empress' life; it only makes some fiction to create a sort of unifying agent to shape the film’s premise. In the film’s beginning, there is a Korean fascist group executing Koreans who had converted to Christianity, and among those killed is the mother of a young boy who would grow up to be a bounty hunter named Moo-Myeong (played Cho Seung-Woo, the terrific Tazza the High Rollers). One day, Moo-Myeong comes to the aid of a noblewoman, called Soo-Ae (Min Ja-Yeong) who is destined to be the queen of Korea. The two form a strange bond that would challenge the fires of passion under the emotion of hidden love. But politics, class and culture stand in the way of the two even as Soo-Ae becomes known as Myeongseong, married to the king of Korea (Kim Young-Min).
It is pretty much a star-crossed love story you are in for in this film, since the actual historical figure is someone who is filled with controversy that the director seemed determined to steer clear. Moo-Myeong is a fictional character based on a shadow in a painting that inspired the movie. Nonetheless, writers Ya Suk Rok and Lee Suk-Yun tries to cover as many historical facts in the film as they could. As a result, the film does feel rather episodic and incoherent, but viewers without any knowledge of Korean history would get the general idea as to who this empress actually was. I believe that the filmmakers knew that not too many Westerners would know anything about the real story to begin with, and rather than make up some quasi-history, they try to make a ‘glue’ in the form of this bodyguard as a tragic figure to present the facts and events that shaped this empress who is covered in controversy. The politics and the current situation in this period were touched upon, and the film uses the political pressures by Japan and Russia to be one of the things that were presented that the film merely scratched the surface.
In return, the direction brings the viewer to an experience that gives more focus to Wuxia sensibilities that consisted of beautiful landscapes, excellent set designs, elaborate costumes and high-flying martial arts action. There is also some attempt to lighten its mood as the script pitches in some subtle comedy, but I guess the odd divided style in storytelling and dichotomous tone took grabbed more attention that the script struggled to find a cohesive footing. I’ve observed that the writing and the direction was struggling to make a desperate attempt to come to a more concrete kind of common thought or theme. I found the ‘love thing’ a little too desperate, and as good as the performances were, I did not find myself captured by what I was watching.
“The Sword with No Name” is a beautiful film, and this may well be enough to carry it above mediocrity. I loved “Shadowless Sword” and I knew it was a work of fiction, but it engaged me with every sword thrust and parry. I guess I found the action scenes in this film to lack emotional impact, for as good-looking as they were, I found myself wanting more. The duel between Moo-Myeoung and one of the finest swordsmen on a boat was pretty amazingly choreographed, but the other fight felt a tad rushed and too stylish. I also noticed certain shifts in tone and mood, as one fight or battle seemed more gritty and bloody than actually being stylish. I guess this was an expression of how as man matures, they become adapted to their present time, and the older our characters get, the more violent their world seems to become. There is a subtle sex scene that was touching, as Moo-Myeoung listened to his beloved Soo-Ae being made love to by her husband, but I was surprised that the story didn’t capitalize on it.
“The Sword with No Name” is a beautiful film, it is beautiful to look at, can be entertaining in its own way, but I think director Kim assumed too much that whoever was going to see the film was going to be Korean, that he forgot to inform clueless westerners about the depths of each character so that his audience could be invested in them. I have a small knowledge of Korean history but even I was a little lost; and I wonder what the empress’ rule would have been really like during this period since the film barely scratched that surface. This empress sought to modernize her country and in the end, she stood tall fighting off a Japanese invasion, but in many ways, she may have provoked this assault. Not too sure, but the historical significance of this character feels a little too underwhelming with this film. I guess filmmakers should be bolder in bringing historical fact to life, since the truth is indeed much more engaging than fiction.
Timid Recommendation to Fans of Korean Cinema, Rental to Everybody Else [3 Out of 5 Stars]