All depending on how much you need lush narrative to interweave with battle sequences, Shadowless Sword may or may not disappoint. Set during the last leg of the Balhae kingdom in the early 900s amidst civil war, a hidden prince named Jeonghyun (Lee Seo-jin) is retrieved to take the throne as the final link in the bloodline. His family has systematically been assassinated, both as a political maneuver and as an act of revenge. Similar to Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies, the price is a disheveled version of himself who disappeared after the responsibilities of kingship clouded his mind and landed him in exile -- as well as a nasty axe that found its way into his back during an important battle for his kingdom.
His family's assassinations link to one man in particular, a vengeance-seeking aristocrat named Gun Hwa-pyung (Shin Hyung-jun, Face) with the crimson-sashed gang-like Killer-Blade army attached as pawns to his effort. It's up to one woman, the elegant ex-soldier Yeon Soha (Yoon So-yi, Arahan), to escort the prince back safely to the kingdom to respectfully take back the throne and defend his people. It's all the standard been-there-done-that predictable fare, sure, but trust me -- once the combat kicks into gear and the debonair, stone-like facial expressions surface, the plot will only seem like a conveyer belt leading each and every manufactured battle scene closer to our consumption.
Shadowless Sword exists in that wildly fantastical world where bodies explode after being sliced with a blade, where humans can levitate at will, and where projectile blades can be launched from warrior's hands faster than the bullets from a machine gun. Some things, like the levitation wire-fu stuff, can be tolerated in very scant amounts -- such as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- but only if it's handled gracefully. Even when the combat finds its way underwater during one scene and the very laws of gravitational pull and aquatic physics are eschewed, enjoyment can still be found in the blue-drenched underwater cinematography. However, when pivotal combat maneuver after combat maneuver is followed by flying chunks of steaming flesh shooting from a body or an easy departure via in-air flight, it gets pretty overwhelming. After the third or so time I saw a torso erupt in a dynamite-like fashion in Shadowless Sword, it took me out of the picture and kept me on the sidelines as nothing more than a careless observer to its artful combat.
But the wuxia-style swordplay stands out in Shadowless Sword, and it's a heck of a lot of fun to behold. There's some really sharp choreography integrated into its unwavering momentum, many times with two or three scenarios edited into the same stretches. One stand-out part comes when Yeon Soha and the Killer Blade's female warrior battle in between an outstretched piece of fabric, while at the same time our prince character and his hammer-wielding foe spark another battle; non-stop explosiveness spreads out everywhere in this -- a level of action that is both relentless and chaotically unfocused. It reminds me a lot of the ways that the outlandish battles were photographed in Iron Monkey, only with much cooler outfits.
The film's advantage over other recent comic-book style swordplay actioners from around the region like The Promise or The Restless can be found in the prowess of its charismatic cast, especially in the form of a decent female hero. That was my biggest gripe with Japan's Azumi; though the happy-go-lucky hack 'em up rhythm and mocking style of animated overacting didn't entertain me much, it was the uncomfortable female lead that really weakened the film for me. I was worried Shadowless Sword would fall in the same framework when Yoon So-yi stoically stepped on-screen, even though her cold glances from those haunting eyes yelled out "killer" from the get-go. Having only seen lengthy clips of City of Violence director Ryoo Seung-wang's outlandish swordplay flick Arahan, she was a foreign entity to me. She's now on my map after Shadowless Sword, because her dangerous beauty and gracefulness infuse Yeon Soha with an incredible vigor that begs to be watched. Yoon So-yi is a convincing martial artist and a compelling focal hero, something that is much easier said than done.
So let's see: superb combat choreography and costume work, a well-cast female hero, blasť storytelling and a befuddled sense of reality. Sounds about right, and I enjoyed Shadowless Sword in waves for all of these contrivances and peaks. Do I wonder what the story would've been like if director Kim Jeung-yong had taken a few measures to concentrate on reality and, possibly, downscale the whimsical nature? Sort of, but in the same right there's a certain charm about its loud campiness that takes it in a different direction -- almost into a different genre. It could've guided me more into the story and made me care about whether the prince lived or died instead of just using him as a provocation mechanism for civil combat, but that would've taken away from the blatant artistry that the director made certain to highlight. It's best to sit back and soak in Shadowless Sword as a visceral dance, kind of like a well-dressed knife ballet that, even with its thrills and awes, still wraps up in holistically predictable and commonplace fashion.
New Line and Warner Bros. bring Legend of the Shadowless Sword to domestic home video in a standard keepcase package. Inside, there's a small slip that gives you instructions on how to retrieve your digital copy of the film via Warner's website.
For those curious as to whether this is the theatrical cut or director's cut, the runtime sits at 116 minutes -- the same runtime as the R3 Spectrum Director's Cut DVD.
Shadowless Sword is a largely visual experience, which conveys quite well in its rich 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Outside of a few scant splashes of blue and green, this transfer is dominated by deep earthy browns and lustrous reds that really pop here. Close inspection shows some really rich levels of detail on the intricate costume work, as well as attentive detail to flesh tones and natural replication of color. Edge enhancement and overly visible aliasing are next to none here, only subtly peeking out in rather dark scenes. Only in some of the more distanced battle sequences, which in the way this close quartered film is edited are few and far between, do facial qualities get a little muddy. It's actually quite a stellar transfer from a quality CJ Entertainment source.
Tracks are available in Korean DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 options, with the higher-quality DTS as the track selected for my viewing. Plenty of wallop comes out in this well-separated audio presentation, yet it might seem a little too compartmentalized in each channel. Each sling of the sword and firing of a projectile rings through crisp and clear, completely audible and enjoyably pitched. The bass channel receives an ample workout, though a lot of the activity levitates on the higher levels of the LFE portion. Don't misunderstand -- in the selective scenes where there should be a crash or thud, there's a beefy crash and a beefy thud. However, it's in the higher-profiled mid-bass range that the strength of this DTS track really resonates. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also available, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Character Introduction (The Villain, The Companion, The King):
Between 14 to 17 minutes minutes per portion, each of these featurettes focuses on the three main characters and their focus points. Basically, break up your typical interview time with the actors in making-of featurettes into character-specific segments and that's what you've got here. There's plenty of behind-the-scenes footage to accompany each bit, as well. Most importantly, every bit of dialogue with the actors comes with English subs.
Behind The Scenes:
This 6-minute featurette gathers together more of the sdame kind of material as the character focus bits into a shorter, broadly focused little piece. There's even some fun shots of our main villain in his full get-up holding a shiny silver cellphone off-"stage".
Also available is a minute-and-a-half long Picture Gallery slideshow, a Music Video with clips of the film integrated into the mix, and a very solid Theatrical (International) Trailer with New Line logos and English narration.
As a huge fan of more poetic epics like Zhang Yimou's style of film and of Korea's own Musa: The Warrior, it's difficult to fire off recommendations for some of the top-down, cotton-candy choreography showcases like Shadowless Sword. There's still something intriguingly top-shelf about its combat sequences and costume designs, however, that help the highly animated actors make this film worth a look. It's fun, mindlessly digestible martial arts lunacy, and fairly entertaining at that. The believability factor, however, makes return visits a little harder to stomach. If you're thirsty for a solid martial arts epic-"ish" flick and you've gotten your fill of both Musa and the likes of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, then definitely give Legend of the Shadowless Sword a look via Rental and prepare for some attractively chaotic nonsense.