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Friday, September 2, 2011

THE SWORD WITH NO NAME -- DVD review by porfle

A tragic love story set in 19th-century Korea, director Kim Yong-gyun's THE SWORD WITH NO NAME (2009) goes for a combination of historical epic, action flick, and tearjerker, with fairly successful results.

The production values are lush, giving us all the pomp and opulence we expect from such royal goings-on.  A beautiful young noblewoman named Ja-young (Su-Ae) is due to marry the king but first becomes friends with roguish swordsman Moo-myoung (Seung-woo Cho), who is hopelessly smitten and swears that he will devote his life to protecting her.  With a new husband who regards her as merely a trophy, she is drawn to Moo-myoung and welcomes his devotion.

Using his wits, Moo-myoung manages to become one of Ja-young's royal guards and leaps into action when political complications--mainly the result of her dealings with both Westerners and the Japanese, which greatly displease her isolationist father-in-law--result in her attempted assassination.

With the young lovers' "meet cute" on a beach and a couple of goofy comedy companions for Moo-myoung, THE SWORD WITH NO NAME takes awhile getting down to serious business.  When it does, though, it gets pretty grim as peripheral characters start getting offed left and right, and various factions begin to move against Ja-young.  While I didn't totally follow all the political details, which are based, I understand, on historical fact, that aspect of the story is well-done and fairly intriguing.

Action-wise, the film features several thrilling setpieces involving both guns and swords.  A couple of major, highly-stylized fight sequences pit Moo-myoung against Korea's greatest swordsman, Lee Noi-jeon (Jae-woong Choi), who is also Ja-young's chief guard.  These are reminiscent of similar scenes in THE MATRIX with CGI succeeding wirework as the hit-and-miss special effect of choice, plus lots of frenetic direction, dizzying camerawork, and rapid-fire editing.  We also get a couple of those big fantasy battle scenes with Moo-myoung taking on dozens of swordsmen singlehanded or with Noi-jeon by his side.

As for the love story, Moo-myoung and Ja-young are an attractive pair but I never really connected with them on an emotional level.  Much of their interplay is by-the-numbers and compares poorly to similar relationships better portrayed in other films, particularly the Japanese film GOEMON from the same year.  While Su-Ae is a good actress who can really turn on the waterworks (she's known in Korea as the "Queen of Tears"), and Seung-woo Cho does manic, selfless devotion like nobody's business, their scenes together finally reach a climax that borders on the maudlin. 

The DVD from Funimation is in 16:9 widescreen with English 5.1 surround and Korean stereo with English subtitles.  Extras include a ten-minute "making of" featurette, cast interviews, teaser and main trailers, and trailers from other Funimation releases.  While I reviewed only the DVD, the combo pack also includes the Blu-Ray version of the film.

Falling somewhat short of the heights reached by other historical films in this vein, THE SWORD WITH NO NAME nevertheless manages to impress and often dazzle with its royal spectacle, political intrigue, and well-staged action sequences.  The fact that it doesn't quite come together as well as one might expect didn't keep me from appreciating the effort that was put into it.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Combo

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