I first fell in love with martial arts movies--or if you prefer, kung fu flicks--when I was just a kid. I was lucky enough to see them at the sleazy movie theater in South Norwalk, Connecticut, near where I grew up; as well as lucky enough to see them on television back when movies like Master Killer (a.k.a. 36th Chamber of Shaolin) would screen on Saturday afternoons. Over the years I have seen some truly brilliant martial arts movies, and some that were total crap, which is why I feel comfortable in saying that despite what other people may say, the Korean-produced, shot-in-China epic The Legend of the Shadowless Sword is actually pretty good.
Set in 927 A.D., the action begins when the nefarious Killer Blade Army of the Georan Empire makes a move to topple the ruling kingdom of Balhae. The Killer Blade Army leaves a path of death and destruction in their wake, including much of the royal family, and with the nation in turmoil, there seems as if all hope is lost. Fortunately, the king has one surviving son living in exile that can be called upon to take his place as king and lead the fight against tyranny. So-ha (Yoon Soy), a beautiful warrior with deadly skills on the battlefield is dispatched to get Jung-hyun (Lee Seo Jin) and return him to the castle. The problem is that Jung-hyun, who has been living his life as little more than a thief, has no desire to become a ruler. The other problem is that the vengeance-minded Gun Hwa-pyung (Shin Hyeon-jun) is out to kill Jung-hyun no matter what. Hwa-pyung is aided by the lovely Mae Yung-ok (Lee Ki-yong), who, like So-ha, is a deadly warrior not to be reckoned with. As So-ha and Jung-hyun make their way across the countryside, they must fight to stay alive as the Killer Blade Army attacks them at every given moment. But the challenge is not just surviving the deadly assaults of the Killer Blade Army, but also So-ha's ability to convince Jung-hyun that he is the man to rally his people against their evil oppressors.
The Legend of the Shadowless Sword is pretty much a standard period-piece action epic that has at its core a tale of romance. In this case, there are two love stories to be found, each revolving around the lovely female asskickers So-ha and Mae Yung-ok, and the men they have sworn to serve. Of course, Shadowless Sword takes its cue from the recent revitalization of martial arts romance stories like House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which are more often than not a bit tragic in the romance department.
The story of Shadowless Sword is nothing extraordinary, and it certainly does not break any new ground. At the same time, the plot never becomes the sort of overly complex mess of convoluted subplots that often bog down some Hong Kong films. There is never that dreaded moment that comes in so many martial arts films where you find yourself wondering, "What's going on?"
The action sequences in Shadowless Sword are the film's strongest element. Utilizing the same style of wire work that has become forever attributed to films out of Hong Kong, Shadowless Sword is filled with sequences that are good, maybe even very good, but never quite great. The cast of Korean actors never quite sell the action sequences the same way as most Hong Kong actors do. But that's not to say that the action sequences don't work, or that they aren't highly entertaining. In fact, when compared to most American films that imitate the high-flying wire work of Hong Kong cinema, Shadowless Sword leaves most of them in the dust. It's just that if you are looking for something akin to Hero or House of Flying Daggers, you're likely to be disappointed.
The Legend of the Shadowless Sword will never be considered a classic--at least not when stacked up next to the best Hong Kong has to offer--but it is more than satisfying for what it is. With an easy to follow story--although a bit predictable and melodramatic--a cast that looks good and action sequences that are entertainingly over the top, you could do a lot worse than Shadowless Sword.