I am slowly being given a lesson in the Wuxia genre at the moment, and was pleasantly surprised by this little gem from Korea.
“Shadowless Sword” takes the key elements from Wuxia and then just flavours it a little with something distinctly Korean, a little melodrama. Based firmly in historic fact, it layers over the top a little martial arts fantasy, that is both wonderfully attractive but also manages to exude that emotional dimension that makes Korean cinema so special to me.
“Shadowless Sword” tells the tale of Gun Hwa-pyung (Shin Hyeon-jun), the last prince of the Kingdom of Balhae, who has been exiled some years hence. Balhae is under siege from Khitan, and the remnants of the Balhae authorities want to bring the Prince back as a symbol to rally the people around. They send Yeon So-ha (Yoon So-yi) to find the errant prince, and bring him back. So-ha is of course a drop-dead gorgeous Martial Arts expert (but actually so much more), with an interesting link to Hwa-pyung’s past.
We also have our main characters echoed by what we have to generically call “the bad guys”, and Male and Female character that are working on the opposite side, with similar goals and motivations.
One aspect that sets this movie apart are the interesting fight scenes – I am thinking specifically of the astonishing underwater scene. There is a little bit of flying swordsmen, but not enough to turn me off. It does have a unique element in that bodies have the tendency to literally explode.
I really loved the portrayal of So-ha by Yoon So-yi – she is totally calm and focussed, obviously talented in the physical requirements of her role, but the character is also very capable of avoiding a fight if necessary. I really got a Cheng Pei-Pei vibe watching her, which is always a good thing.
We also get character development which I often find missing – the Prince has quite a character arc (even more interesting when you take the timeline as a whole into account), and plenty of time is given to the desires and thoughts of those on the other side – they are far more than just black-hatted villains.
What makes this Korean? Not just obvious production and cinematic quality, but the emotional core. So-ha is linked to Hwa-pyung in an interesting way, but even though potential romance is hinted about, it never reaches any kind of fulfilment. Death is always round the corner, and you know tears are going to be called for in the final moments.
Interestingly, I see online reviews are pretty much split down the middle. Some people thing this is an amazing film, whereas many see it as poor. I think I sit in the former camp, and probably because I am not so tied to the mores and conventions of the standard martial arts movie.
It isn’t a deep movie, and nor is it going to change your life. But it is pretty darn super in my opinion.