Dir. Kim Eui-Suk. Korea.2003. 100mins.
Dark, bloody and brutal, Kim Eui-Suk's martial artsextravaganza, released in Korea last July to lukewarm response, played in UnCertain Regard at Cannes in the hope of catching second wind with a differenttype of audience. But its grim, humourless disposition is unlikely to gain itmany new friends.
The action, which takesplace somewhere in the middle of the 18th-century at the end of theChosun dynasty, is typical of the genre: idealist men of arms dedicated to theircountry fight against corrupt usurpers of power and kingdom, with a tale ofbetrayed friendship serving as the excuse for the plot.
But extended battle scenes,most of them taking place at night, leave little room for the story, such as itis. The actors perform their chores with unsmiling solemnity; the soundtrack iscopiously sprinkled with grunts, squeals and screams; and the swordplaysupplants imagination with brute force. The film took just under $3m in SouthKorea, most of it outside Seoul.
Using frequent but less thanevident flashbacks, Jang Min-Suk's script tells the story of two admirablewarriors and dedicated friends, Ji Hwan (Choi Min Soo) and Gyu-yeop (ChoJae-hyun), who are separated after their graduation from a military academyknown as Sword In The Moon. The first goes on to serve on the royal guard, thesecond to keep the country's borders safe.
But rebels overpower theborder garrison during a treacherous military coup. When they threaten toexecute every single one of his soldiers, Gyu-yeop, as the commander in charge,is forced to pledge them his allegiance. To prove his good faith he has to killhis much admired master of the academy who refuses to compromise hisprinciples, and later his old friend, still faithful to the old regime.
Having already betrayed hisideals, Gyu-yeop turns into a fiercely unscrupulous swordsman, known as TheButcher for his pitiless behaviour on the battlefield. Five years later, he isordered to catch a mysterious assassin whose victims are all crooked ministersof the new regime. Soon enough, he begins to suspect the man he is looking foris none other than the friend he believed he had killed with his own hands.
The film pinpoints itshistorical period accurately, showing that the behind-the-camera crews haveaccurately researched the swords, armour and costumes.
But audiences in general andWestern ones in particular tend to look for the abstract choreographicqualities of martial arts films rather then the purely technical ones; theyhanker for imagination rather than historical accuracy.
Here, the narrative line ispretty muddled, the intricacies of the political struggles never quitespecified and characterisations conveniently black, white and superficial.
Visually, however, there isnothing to complain about. The art direction and costume departments havespared no effort to recreate the feeling and look of the period, with thebreathtaking ceremonial coronation bridge built on boats for the last scenerumoured to have set the production's budget back by around $1m.
Moon Yong-shik's camerawork, a study in red, grey and black throughout the numerous night sequences,is brilliantly colourful whenever it is allowed to bask in full sunshine.Effective sound and picture editing are doubly enhanced by an over-dramaticscore loud enough to leave you limp and exhausted by the end of it.
Prod co: Whitelee Entertainment
Int'l sales: Pathe
Prod: Lee Dong-kwon
Scr: Jang Min-suk
Cine: Moon Yong-shik
Ed: Kang Min-ho
Prod. des: Hong Jong-ho, HwangChang-bok
Sound: Choi Jae-ho
Music: Lee Kyung-sub
Martial arts coordination: WonJin, Bun Yuen
Main cast: Choi Min-soo, ChoJae-hyun, Kim Bo-kyung