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In Association with
The Sword With No Name (2009)
Director: Kim Yon-gyun

review by Max Cairnduff

The cover for The Sword With No Name makes it look like a stirring historical action movie. It isn't. It's a historical romantic melodrama with occasional (and sometimes rather random) fight scenes. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A great film can come with a somewhat misleading cover. Unfortunately, this isn't a great film.

The film takes place in Korea in the 19th century. King Gojong (Kim Young-min) is young, and the kingdom is ruled by his father Yi Ha-eung (Jeon Ho-jin). Yi Ha-eung is the Daewungon, the regent, and he is a firm traditionalist bitterly opposed to foreigners gaining influence in Korean affairs as they have in China.

A king needs a queen, and keen to avoid a bride's family complicating court politics the decision is taken that young noblewoman Min Ja-young (Su-Ae) should be chosen. Her father is dead, and therefore she has no relatives looking to use her new position to their own advantage.

Before the wedding can take place, though, Min Ja-young decides to take some time by herself to see the sea and calm her mind. While travelling, she encounters what she takes to be a young boatman, Moo-myoung (Cho Seung-woo). They share a day together and a spark of romance is lit between them, he ignorant that she is to be queen, and she is ignorant that he is really a deadly assassin.

Soon after, of course, he learns what she is, and she goes to fulfil her destiny at court. Once married, she uses her position to open the court to foreign ambassadors and fashions, and the Daewungon realises that if she is not stopped his policy of a closed Korea will be ruined. The queen then is in danger, but fortunately the love-struck Moo-myoung has found a way to become a palace guard and so will protect the woman he loves, even if he must accept that she now belongs to the king.

Written like that it all sounds rather good. The problem is that this is a film that tries to be too many things, and that for me didn't really succeed at any of them. Min Ja-young was a real person and her story is a famous one in Korea. Her story is a dramatic and tragic one, and so this is on one level a historical biopic. Historically, though, there was no Moo-myoung, so this isn't just history. It's also a historical romance, and the bulk of the film is about the forbidden love between Moo-myoung and Min Ja-young - a love which neither of them can ever really express.

As well as all that it's also a martial arts film, though only occasionally. The heart of the film is the history and the romance. The fights, when they come, with only one or two exceptions feel bolted on, as if the director was afraid I'd get bored without some wirework every now and again.

This is a film which makes heavy use of CGI. Sometimes it's effectively done, with artificial colour highlighting some scenes and backgrounds being enhanced for extra contrast. Sometimes it's much clumsier. Two butterflies appear; once between the two would-be lovers, and later flying into the middle of an epic duel. Both times they're laughably unconvincing, reminding me more than anything of the animated bluebirds in The Song Of The South.

Moo-myoung's chief opponent is Noe-jeon (Choi Jai-woong), the Daewungon's right hand man and reputedly the best swordsman in Korea. Noe-jeon does not approve of Moo-myoung's evident hold on the queen's affections, and the two match their swords on more than one occasion.

What's odd is that each time they do the film essentially stops and transforms into a computer game cut-scene. In the first duel between the pair, each stands on a boat (Noe-jeon's being self-propelled for reasons never explained) and a CGI fish leaps between them as their blades flash back and forth. The scene makes extremely heavy use of CGI to the point that both characters look distinctly animated. Their second major duel though involves a Hero-esque mental clash in which they stare into each other's eyes and their battle of wills is shown on screen as if it were real.

For that second duel, the background fades away to a wholly CGI backdrop of a frozen and desolate landscape with dimly seen Korean buildings in the background. Both characters again look animated rather than real, and the whole effect left me feeling I'd far rather be playing it than watching it. I've no problem with using computer game motifs in movies, but given the naturalistic nature of many other scenes (and the lack of any real reason for the duels to be happening) it all felt very odd and distinctly tacked on.

In the end, I was bored. None of the cast really convinced me, though Cho Seung-woo as Moo-myoung came closest, and by the end as the queen was betrayed to the perfidious Japanese (who actually cackled as they cut down ladies-in-waiting) I just didn't care. Korean cinema routinely varies in tone to a much greater degree than western cinema. It's not unusual for the same film to have horror, romance, comedy and pathos. When it works, those combinations can make a film fresh and a delight to watch (The Host springs to mind). Here, though, the film isn't quite a biopic, the romance doesn't persuade, and the fight scenes make no real sense in the context of the wider story.

If you have a widescreen television and feel like a bit of spectacle with an interesting historical background then you may enjoy this. Looking online, I can see a lot of people liked it a lot more than I did. For me though, this is a film which feels flabby, and which could easily have benefitted from losing about half an hour off its length. Parts of it aren't bad, but neither are they great, and the whole is not the sum of its parts.

The Sword With No Name

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