Shadowless Sword is a Korean entry into the wuxia (swordplay) genre, which is kind of the Asian equivalent of Western superhero stories. Heroes and villains fly and fight, and usually the good guys win. Directed by Kim Young-Jun, he attempts to blend action, comedy, romance, and historical epic into one picture, achieving mixed results.
Story-wise, Shadowless Sword is nothing new. Two kingdoms are at war. The armies of Dongranguk have aggressively expelled the royal family of Balhae and are now killing them off one by one while exiling their subjects. The remaining Balhae resistance has located the final member of the court, a prince who left some years before. They send a badass female member of the royal guard, Yeon So Ha (Yoon So-Yi), to retrieve him. Prince Jeongh Yeon (Seo-Jin Lee) is now going by the name of Sosam, and he's earning a living as a fence in a strange town where all the crooks are dandies who act like they are auditioning to replace Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Naturally, Sosam gave up the princely life for a reason, and he doesn't want to leave with So Ha. Only when the deadly Killer Blade Army shows up looking for his head does he relent. So Ha is a formidable guard, and she can hold off the best of them, but for the leader of the Killer Blades, Kun (Hyun-Joon Shin), and his right-hand lady, the icy assassin Mae (Ki-Yong Lee), this mission is personal, and they aren't going to be stopped easily.
Like I said, this is nothing new. You're going to see where a lot of it is going. For instance, no one is going to be shocked to discover Prince Yeon and So Ha fall in love. You may be shocked by what a dunderhead he is, though, as it takes him 4/5 of the movie to realize they have a prior connection the audience figured out pretty quickly. I mean, is it a coincidence that she's an orphan girl raised by his father's army and the prince remembers saving a little girl in battle, leading to the big scar on his back? Methinks not. The script doesn't do anything with subtlety, it's all very up front. Ditto for the acting. The performances are all one-dimensional, unless you can count Kun being brutally distant and totally evil as two dimensions. There are character motivations lurking in the background, but neither the writer nor the actors do anything to bring them out. The most unique and interesting aspect of the story is the parallel roles of So Ha and Mae as female warriors, and the questions of what they are required to give of themselves to serve their masters--but this barely gets a passing nod.
Where Shadowless Sword really shines is in the action sequences. The tone is set right from the beginning, with a knock-down-drag-out brawl where many warriors lose their heads. The battles are well choreographed, and the special effects are a combination of CGI, wire work, and what appears to be the occasional old-school by-hand approach. Unlike a lot of films of the kind that have been released recently, the effects aren't overpowering in the context of the action. In fact, all the effects were integrated so well, there was never a point where I was knocked out of the illusion by obvious CGI. The fights keep the film moving so that we are never bogged down. The most stunning of these scenes is the underwater battle, with blood spurting from dead swordsmen in dank clouds and throwing stars whizzing by the good guys like machine gun bullets.
The title Shadowless Sword refers to So Ha's blade, a key plot element in the final quarter of the film. As little kids, potential warriors are told an old wives' tale about an evil spirit living in the swords of killers, and with each victim, that demon drinks the blood of the slain until it gets powerful enough to take over the person wielding the weapon. The prince believes this to be nonsense, but So Ha isn't so sure. As a warrior, she tries to maintain a purity of spirit by insisting that her sword is not for killing, but for protecting precious things. Her life is not for fighting, but for guarding royal subjects. It becomes the key lesson the prince has to learn to come to any acceptance of his crown. Too bad when that epiphany finally comes into play, it's overwhelmed by the overwrought and overlong climax.
All in all, Shadowless Sword is an entertaining film, albeit a hollow one. For viewers looking for some sword-on-sword action, it will definitely deliver, but the filmmakers seem to miss their own point by only presenting the flash of the kill and shortchanging the substance of the act.
This is a region 3 disc and so will only be compatible with multi-region players.
Shadowless Sword is given a sharp 2.25:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors pop, and I didn't notice any picture oddness. I was especially pleased with how nice the effects looked. The CGI never stood out, but fit perfectly with the rest of the scenes.
There are a couple of 5.1 sound mixes to choose from, both in DTS and Dolby Digital. The chaotic battle sequences are the true benchmark for a film like Shadowless Sword. It's easy to toss all the clanging of swords and grunts of the fighters into one big pile, but the folks behind the film make sure every effect is well-placed and distinct.
There are Korean and English subtitles. The English is pretty middle-of-the-road, with some grammatical ticks and the occasional misplaced or misspelled word. The translation could have used a little more finesse, but since the script was Shadowless Sword's weakest link, it probably isn't that great of a tragedy that someone says "query" when they meant "quarry." I thought at the beginning that the titles were passing a little fast, too, but things settled down as the film progressed.
You're going to be bummed when you put the bonus disc in, because it's simply packed with stuff: multiple behind-the-scenes features looking at battle sequences, set creation, and other aspects of production; deleted sequences; trailers; and a montage of stills and music that I suppose might be called a "music video." None of these impressive extras are subtitled in English, though, so not much good for the non-Korean speaking viewer. This drops my rating of the extras to a square middle: good features, too bad I can't watch them.
The packaging of the set is pretty exceptional. Presented in a sturdy cardstock box, the magnetic lid opens to both sides, and then the interior flips up to reveal the two discs (making a sort of upside-down T). The artwork is printed with a gorgeous screen quality, making the container an art object while still remaining functional. You also get a bonus of a little padded pendant with a picture of the heroes, Jeong and So Ha.
Rent It. The action sequences in Shadowless Sword are exciting enough to keep fight fans from fidgeting, but for an overall movie experience, there are deeper wuxia offerings out there that you'd be more likely to choose over this when it came time for repeat viewings. It's too bad, because a little more focus on nuance in the script and performances would have pushed Shadowless Sword over the top.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.