THE SWORD WITH NO NAME is a slick, stylish, and wonderful period drama that explores Empress Myeong-seong's tumultuous reign as `the Queen of Korea' during the Joseon Dynasty. The Queen sought to limit Japanese influence within her country, and, to accomplish this, she created stronger bonds with competing nations of the time, such as Russia. Japanese assassins stormed her chambers in 1895 and killed and desecrated her body. SWORD tells her story, alongside that
All of the principles perform outstanding work throughout SWORD. Soo Ae is simply lovely and demure - exactly as you would want a young queen to be - in the role of Myeong-seong; in the start of the picture - shortly after she has been selected by the committee to be Korea's queen - she is quiet and perhaps a bit rough around the edges; however, once she makes the transformation to her chosen role, she lights up the screen. As her smitten suitor, Seung-woo Cho plays the bounty-hunter-turned-palace-guard Moo-myeong with the perfect balance of youthful charisma and cluelessness. He follows his heart, taking his blade along for the journey, to protect the woman he loves with it appears her own government is failing her. Also, Ho-jin Jeon suitably chews scenery (when necessary) as Dae Won-gun, the primary force behind dethroning Myeong-seong for what he believes is a fraudulent reign of his country.
Throughout the picture, Director Yong-gyun Kim maintains a timeless story. In the beginning, as the young queen and her guide explore the countryside, Kim leisurely walks his actors through their paces, photographing the picture in modestly idyllic settings; as the queen and her guard begin to discover their blossoming roles in Korea's dynasty, it's almost as if Kim allows the tiny nation to become more and more luscious. Cleverly, the director mirrors the couples rise and inevitable fall with his camera work, and he punctuates their softer moments with softly lit close-ups while displaying the perils of their journeys with more starkly composed scenes. It's clear that, as a storyteller, Kim has tremendous respect for the material, and SWORD is amply serves by not only a talented cast but also a competent command of the material.
The film is not without a few minor quibbles and possibly one major distraction. On several occasions, when director Kim could've (and should've) chosen a straight cut from one sequence to another, he instead chose a fade, which traditionally informs the narrative that some time has passed; in effect, no time has passed, so the effect is a bit confusing. Instead, the dissolves serve to slow down the narrative - to slow down the story - and I don't think that's what was intended. Now, this choice may've been a matter of experience versus inexperience; reviewing IMDB.com, I can only find Kim's name attached to a scant three pictures. Granted, IMDB.com could be incomplete, and that's why I'm willing to chalk it up to an inadvertently amateurish mistake on Kim's part. Perhaps a more seasoned director would've (and should've) chosen differently. Like I said, it's a minor quibble, but a quibble, nonetheless.)
However, what I felt was a major distraction - thankfully, Kim kept it to a bare minimum - was the incorporation of CGI into a few critical fight sequences. As an example, I'll point out the spectacular swordfight staged between two of the principles - Seung-woo Cho and Jae-jin Baek. Clearly, what the script called for was a major display of artistic prowess; given the location - a boat on the middle of the ocean - much of this was accomplished thru green-screen photography and CGI inserts ... and therein lays the problem. So much of the film is location shooting - out of the countryside, exteriors of the Queen's `castle,' etc. - that the sequence doesn't comfortably mesh with the bulk of the picture. It ends up feeling far more anime influenced than it need be, with the pixilated actors jumping and leaping and defying gravity in ways that conflicted with the naturalist narrative that dominates the film. The CGI - while understandably necessary - produced the negative effect of being glaringly obvious. No - for the purists - is doesn't destroy the film; it only feels out-of-sync with the rest of it.
This is classically-constructed storytelling - a young queen in distress aided by her faithful servant - and, as a consequence, THE SWORD WITH NO NAME may not be for everyone. It's filled with loss and love, sacrifice and redemption, nationalism and selflessness. Certainly, anyone viewing the frenetic CGI-enhanced fight sequences mentioned above may come away somewhat disappointed with the finished product. But for mature audiences who can accept a reasonable amount of artistic license with a quality period piece, SWORD delivers magnificently, and it deserves to be discovered by audiences around the world. It's the stuff of legends - told by a gifted cast and crew - and it deserves a place in any film fan's library.
In the fairness of disclosure, I was provided a screener copy by the folks at FUNimation Entertainment to complete this review.