[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
As vast as the library of Hong Kong films may be, other countries are producing what would be considered Kung Fu films by the average moviegoer. I don’t mean that in an ignorant way, but more that certain styles and themes are replicated in other countries because of their love and appreciation for this ancient Chinese art. That’s precisely what Bichunmoo is: a Korean made wuxia film based on a popular graphic novel (that I seemingly cannot find a lick of information about).
Shot entirely on location in China with the largest budget the South Korean film industry had seen at the time – it cost around $4 million USD in 2000 and was quickly supplanted by Musa: The Warrior the next year – Bichunmoo is something of an enigma to western audiences. I don’t recall it being dubbed or even localized for foreign audiences. I’m not even quite sure why I have a DVD of it, apart from it being a martial arts film. I don’t remember where I heard of the film and I can’t even track down my Korean DVD. It almost feels like I’m the only person in the world who owns this particular version.
I know I bought this in high school and watched it at least once…ringing endorsement, I know. Still, I never forgot the high flying fight sequences and the absolutely elaborate set design. I also have the poster burned into my memory. The shot of leads Yu Jinha (Hyeon-jun Shin) and Sullie (Kim Hee-seon) locked in a passionate kiss foreshadowing the tragedy that is about to unfold. It’s breathtaking.
Sadly, nostalgia can often be a cruel mistress. While I’ve spoken previously about how classics like Come Drink With Me don’t necessarily hold up after 50 years, Bichunmoo was practically outdated when it released. The most notable thing is that it was expensive as hell because after rewatching this film for this column, I’m not sure what the hell I initially saw in it.
Let’s start with a quick recap of the plot. Beginning in media res, Bichunmoo tells us the bittersweet tale of Yu Jinha and Sullie, star-crossed lovers that fight to stay united, but ultimately are separated by forces beyond their control. We start with a shot of Jinha looking longingly at Sullie from afar before cutting to a flashback of how the two met. It seems fate intervened one day as Jinha happened to be at the right place and the right time to save Sullie from a rabid wolf. The two quickly grow close and grow up alongside each other, eventually sharing martial arts philosophy and becoming more than friends.
It’s easy to compare Bichunmoo to Romeo and Juliet, just with a tad bit more Kung Fu flair. In fact, not even 25 seconds into the film and we’re given a ridiculously violent and kinetic fight scene that sees a bunch of warriors flipping and dipping on wires while dismembering foes with some ancient art. It’s an amazing way to open the film, but that momentum evaporates almost immediately.
I think one of the biggest reasons why I couldn’t quite remember what this film is all about is that it feels like loads of plot is missing. Adapted from a graphic novel (or, at least, that’s what Wikipedia says), a lot of liberties were taken with bringing this story to the silver screen. As such, we quickly shift from different time periods with little to no explanation and are expected to go along with the ride.
The beginning is explained fine enough if a bit clichéd in setup. Jinha is a vagabond with an unknown past while Sullie is the daughter of a concubine born into royalty. At a banquet held by her father, a Mongolian general, he arranges a marriage to a nobleman that Sullie initially refuses. Wishing not to break her promise to Jinha, she protests before Jinha rushes into her compound to save her. He’s swiftly defeated, but Sullie informs him where they can meet in the future.
As time passes, Jinha runs into a man named Namgung Junkwang (Jung Jin-young) who befriends him after witnessing his secret deadly art. They talk about their philosophies on life and even speak about their romantic endeavors. Fate being ever the jokester, it turns out Junkwang is in fact the nobleman that Sullie’s father has bequeathed her to. In an underhanded way, Junkwang “kills” Jinha and takes Sullie for his own, who agrees to the marriage on the assumption that her true love is lost to the sands of time.
Then the film flashes forward 10 years to a period where Jinha is destroying Mongols and…wait. How did we get here? Yeah, that’s the biggest problem with Bichunmoo. Everything I just wrote sounds like a truncated retelling of events but is precisely the amount of depth any plot is given in this film. For a movie that runs a little under two hours, it feels simultaneously too long and too brief, omitting an entire middle act just to rush to the tragic rendezvous of Jinha and Sullie years later.
At least in between all of this plot is a smattering of pretty solid fight scenes. While the camera could be pulled back to better showcase the actors, there’s not much in the way of stunt doubles or CGI effects going on. That’s not to say there aren’t dated special effects, because my god are some shots awful, but Bichunmoo accurately captures the feeling and style of classic wuxia films. If not for the higher quality – the production design is jaw-dropping – you could fool someone into thinking this was a 60s Hong Kong production.
The biggest flaw here is that the fight sequences become repetitive after the mid-point. There are only so many times you can see Jinha do the same barrel roll to dodge sword attacks before it becomes repetitive. The film also goes way overboard on the whole “double-cross” angle with its plot, seeing characters change allegiances literal scenes after they state their intent. It clearly feels like a rushed production, even if the costumes and sets command respect.
Worse than any of that, however, is the acting. I wouldn’t call anyone here bad, but there is absolutely no chemistry between the leading actors. For a film that puts the crux of its arc on how desperately in love these two lovebirds are, the fact that they never feel comfortable together practically ruins the movie. Hyeon-jun looks amazing in his samurai getup and Hee-seon is very beautiful, but I just don’t feel their pain and suffering at all.
On paper, the elements are all there. Bichunmoo understands how to create a tragedy, but it simply doesn’t mix the ingredients together long enough. With very little time given to anything important, the end result is mostly a hodgepodge of clashing themes and clashing blades. It’s a feast for the eyes (and occasionally the ears with the soundtrack), but one that will leave your head spinning with whiplash.
For the first year of this column, I tried my best to avoid any films I couldn’t find positives in. When I was looking for a potential candidate this month, I simply had a hankering to rewatch Bichunmoo after all of these years. In lieu of having an actual Christmas film to critique, I figured I would just go with my own desire here. Sadly, I couldn’t really recommend anyone seek this out.
There are some cheap DVDs available on Amazon, but the Korean film industry has absolutely moved on to better things over the last 20 years. Everyone has stepping stones they take to achieve greatness…it’s just sad that Bichunmoo will only be remembered as such.
February: Enter The Dragon
March: Come Drink With Me
April: The Prodigal Son
May: 7 Grandmasters
June: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
July: The Big Boss
August: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
September: Dirty Ho
October: Spooky Encounters
November: Wheels on Meals