Review: The Sword with No Name


[Korean Movie Night NY finishes its “Epic Romance” series with Kim Yong-Gyun’s The Sword with No Name. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tomorrow night (June 16th) at 7 PM. More information can be found here.]

At the risk of giving this review an unnecessarily religious overtone, I want to point out how interesting it is to see Christianity as a persecuted religion. It’s not something I’ve seen a lot of in movies (usually it’s Christianity doing the persecution), even in historical ones. This is the only film of the four that were shown as part of the “Epic Romance” series that deals with religion. But Christianity isn’t the point, nor is religion. Nor is it really about romance, for that matter.

So maybe I don’t know what it’s about. That doesn’t matter. I still liked it.

The Sword with No Name (Bulkkotcheoreom Nabicheoreom불꽃처럼 나비처럼)
Director: Kim Yong-Gyun
Rating: R
Country: South Korea 

If I had to guess the meaning of the English title, I would guess that it says something about the role of a protector, and how protagonist Mu Myeong (Cho Seung-Woo) is nothing more than his sword (which is really more of a really big knife). Mu Myeong is not actually the protagonist’s name. His name is Johannes, a Christian name bestowed upon him by his mother. But after his mother was murdered (for being a Christian), he changed it. Mu Myeong means “no light” in Korean (or, alternately, “no name”), but that says nothing about his disposition, which is really quite cheery.

Mu Myeong is a hitman of sorts, but he also runs boats down the river. Or at least he does when pretty women ask him to. In this case, the pretty woman is Ja Yeong (Soo-Ae), who is about to marry the king (Kim Young-Min) and thus become the queen. Unfortunately for her, Mu Myeong quickly falls for her, and spends most of the movie trying to protect her and/or take her for himself. A noble goal, certainly, albeit a pretty stupid one. 

Soo-Ae in The Sword with No Name (Korean movie)

Ja Yeong, whose name roughly translates to “Red Flower,” likewise has a noble yet stupid goal. As queen, she gives herself an exorbitant amount of power, and actually seems to have more political success than her husband (or anybody else). Her attempts to bring in peace from other countries are mostly successful, but they paint a target on her back, and a number of hits are ordered upon her.

So maybe The Sword with No Name is a political movie. Certainly a lot of time is spent dealing with the ramifications of Ja Yeong’s work. AsianWiki says that Ja Yeong is based on a real character (although her relationship with Mu Myeong is made up), and I wonder how close to history the film is. Regardless, the history it claims to tell is very interesting. A large portion of the conflict comes from the role of the Japanese Empire in the Korean monarchy. What Ja Yeong does hurts the relationship between those two powers, and her death is intended as a message, one coming primarily from Japan.

Soo-Ae and Jo Seung-woo in The Sword with No Name (Korean movie)

But in order to carry out the hits, people have to go through Mu Myeong. That’s not such an easy task. Although the film never shows him carrying out any hits (a missed opportunity, if you ask me), he is clearly very skilled in the art of murder. As the film went on, it was not always clear if people were being killed or simply incapacitated, but it didn’t really matter. Either way, they were done. And he would stand triumphant. 

In fact, Mu Myeong seemed to have a much harder time with the one-on-one fights than with large groups. Although that’s because he usually fought Noe Jeon (Choi Jae-Woong), who is referred to as the best fighter in Korea. The battles between those two are intense and really, really bizarre. Aside from taking place in weird settings, the fights turn heavily CGI and the characters start flipping around and doing things that nobody else does in the film. It’s a combination of the actors, CG, and green screen that really never worked for me. I wished that they had chosen less crazy locales and simply done some fancy wire work if that’s the look they were going for. 

What made the scenes especially strange is their use of depth. I felt like I was watching a movie that was intended to be shown in 3D. Not because it would benefit from another visual dimension, but because the occasionally gimmicky action sequences look specifically designed for one. Knives are thrown towards the camera or a character’s leg whips around in an unnecessary flourish. But the film was never shown in 3D, as far as I know, so I’m really not sure what the motivation was there. 

Jo Seung-woo in The Sword with No Name (Korean movie)

As a romance, The Sword with No Name is unique, because the relationship is never consummated. There are a few moments where the characters are forced to be close together, but they are nonetheless entirely chaste. The one sexual moment in the film does not take place between the lovers, which makes it all the more significant. Although there is the appearance of lust (certainly on his side, if not hers), the film does more to create the feeling of actual love.

It’s nice in that respect, actually, and it explains the rashness of Mu Myeong’s behavior. Whether his love is requited or not, he certainly feels it and tries earnestly to pursue it. Scenes that could be considered creepy come off as caring instead, and moments that, out of context, could seem disturbing work within the framework of the story. It’s a fine line between obsessive/stalkerish and loving/caring, and the film treads it carefully, fortunately never falling too far towards the former. What they have is sweet, distant and unfortunate though it is.

Soo-Ae in The Sword with No Name Korean movie

There is a lot to The Sword with No Name, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, but it does most of those things well. I was not a fan of the animation-heavy combat (though the more realistic fights were enjoyable) and I got caught up a few times when I wasn’t quite sure about the allegiances of some key characters.

On the whole, though, I was able to follow the film’s ups and downs without too much trouble. It was a bit wonky along the way, but (aside from the ice fight) never really went off the rails. But if I’m going to see this metaphor to its logical conclusion, I must say that I definitely enjoyed the ride.