The Sword With No Name (불꽃처럼 나비처럼, Kim Yong-gyun: 2009)

Ja Yeong takes a trip to the coast to see the sea before leaving to be married. She meets Moo Myeong, a rough, low class bodyguard who immediately falls in love with her. When Moo Myeong finds out that the person Ja Yeong is to marry is the King himself he secures a position in the palace guard where he hopes to see her again and keep her safe. Ja Yeong becomes Empress Myeong-seong but finds that she has her own problems when her actions in the palace have political repercussions and her position is threatened from both inside and outside the palace…

An old fashioned romance with wild CGI-heavy action scenes while telling the story of a real historical figure through a fictional romance, it’s fair to say that The Sword With No Name is an unusual mix. The real historical figure here is Empress Myeong-seong – a revered character in Korean history, not the least because she was viewed by the Japanese as a barrier to their continued overseas expansion but also because she represents a period when Korea was embracing modernisation – and the fictional romance is with a bodyguard by the name of  Moo Myeong. Director Kim Yong-gyun (The Red Shoes) does everything he can to try to inject some on screen excitement into this dramatic tale and while he makes some excellent choices (the casting, the restrained relationship) he also makes a few bad ones.

Soo-ae takes on the lead role of Empress  Myeong-seong and makes for a convincingly innocent young girl thrown into a highly charged political arena. The Sword With No Name‘s take on Empress Myeong-seong is that of a woman defined more by her determination to learn and grow through new experiences rather than of a woman with a particular agenda. Jo Seung-woo as Moo-myeong carries an equally naive air about him, an innocence that is completely devoured within the palace where even the King does not really rule, instead taking his lead from his father Dae Won-gun – played by Cheon Ho-jin. The two leads have a natural chemistry that makes it easy to believe the unspoken bond between them, and both manage to lend a bit of weight to what could in the wrong hands have felt like lightweight roles. It helps a great deal that they’re surrounded by a handful of actors with their own strong presence – the mentioned Cheon Ho-jin is extremely watchable as the man with the real power, as he divides himself between the man who is fatherly and the man who wants absolute power. Then there’s Choi Jae-woong as the menacing fighter Noe-jeon who takes a dislike to Moo Myeong. It’s an underwritten role but he manages to make it memorable. So far so good.

The Sword With No Name is really very stunning to look at and paced beautifully when it is focused on the side of realism (I’ll explain in a second) and despite the romantic angle of its historical tale it manages to stay away from the melodrama, and is instead unpessimistically sweet.
Then there’s the action.

This is where things start to become less straightforward and, depending on your point of view, where the film makes or breaks itself. The action scenes in The Sword With No Name fall into two types: the first type is through fairly large-scale battle scenes with hand to hand fighting and – although fairly typical of this type of historical tale and despite their ‘already seen this a hundred times recently’ nature – they’re nicely shot and well edited. One unintentional laugh-out-loud moment did remind me of a scene in the Donnie Yen film An Empress and the Warriors, but for the most part it’s solid. The second style of action scene is the more jarring of the two. Incredibly over the top CGI action against fantasy backdrops where every move is exaggerated with the characters flying through the air while the camera spins around them – these scenes verge on becoming abstract and serve a function of displaying the mindset of the fighters. Unlike a film such as Hero where the action serves the story as much as the spectacle in The Sword With No Name the action scenes stop the rest of proceedings altogether. Although it’s fairly  clear what the intention is for them, and taken on their own they are impressive and, again, even poetic scenes (very fast poetry, mind you), they still jar with the rest of the realistic style of the rest of the film. Whether you rate the film may well come down to whether or not you find this annoying!

Back over to the main crux of the film, the ongoing events within the palace unwind quite nicely , only really stumbling when dealing with the increasing threats from the Japanese and making the mistake of reduces them to token villains. While the focus is understandably on Empress Myeong-seong and the people immediately surrounding her, it would have been nice for her influence and the effect her presence has in the wider world to have been expanded on rather than reduced to a few scenes containing exposition and typically ‘evil’ sounding Japanese villains. It’s certainly something that would have added another level of emotional resonance in the later parts of the film.

The Sword With No Name can be praised for trying a new approach in both its storytelling and design and it’s slick direction makes me think I should look for director Kim Yong-gyun’s earlier effort The Red Shoes. The two leads are excellent – as are Choi Jae-woong and Cheon Ho-jin – and the whole thing looks beautiful. Unfortunately the stylistic mix doesn’t always gel well and, although each element is fine in its own right the pacing and storytelling suffer as a result. Still, The Sword With No Name is worth seeking out, it’s hard to be too critical of an attempt to try something different. The positive certainly outweighs the negative but for me the mix is a little misjudged – if you can go with the sudden changes in tempo then you’ll find a lot to like here.

불꽃처럼 나비처럼 (The Sword With No Name)
Directed by Kim Yong-gyun
Produced by Yun Sang-oh, Kim Mi-hee, Park Min-hee
Written by Lee Suk-yeon
Starring Soo-ae, Jo Seung-woo, Cheon Ho-jin, Choi Jae-woong

The Sword With No Name Image © SidusFNH Corporation