Funimation // 2009 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // September 20th, 2011
He gave her the strength to change a nation.
Watching the 2009 Korean epic The Sword with No Name was a frustrating experience. It is a beautiful movie -- lush and colorful and packed with stunning imagery -- but it's a movie at war with itself. Half of the time, it's an epic action film rife with sword fights and the kind of action choreography we've come to expect from Eastern cinema. On the other, it's a historical drama about a young future queen with strong ideas about to change the way her country is ruled. One feels different and interesting, the other overly familiar and, dare I say it, a little bit tired at this point. Take a guess which is which.
The movie stars Soo-Ae as Ja Yeong, an empress who is next in line for the throne of Korea. She meets and befriends a man named Mu Myeung (Cho Seung-Woo), who quickly falls in love with her; in an effort to stay as close to her as possible, Mu Myeung offers his services as her bodyguard. When Ja Yeong becomes the target of an assassination attempt authorized to block her opposition to Russian and Japanese interests, Mu Myeun must step in to protect her. The future of their country is at stake.
It's in the portrait of a young queen with strong ideals and integrity and a progressive vision of the future where The Sword with No Name works best. Though the movie does get bogged down in political machinations from time to time, it has, at its center, a compelling story that hasn't been told dozens of times already (at least that I've seen). Even the romance between Ja Yeong and Mu Myeung has its moments, mostly thanks to the chemistry and charisma of the two lead actors; for the most part, though, that particular plotline feels heavily influenced by soap operas. It's not bad, per se, but it's dealing with big, broad emotional strokes when it needs to be more specific about the particular circumstances and feelings of these characters. It's the kind of movie that will show us via cutaways that Ja Yeong is thinking of her bodyguard while in bed with another man, rather than allowing us to read the expression on her face.
Then there is the action, which I suspect is what will draw a lot of viewers to The Sword with No Name, and which I equally suspect will let them down. Part of the problem is that this kind of swordplay feels overly familiar after a decade defined by the action choreography of Wu Ping, but a larger issue is that it's not even handled all that well. When the swordfights really kick in, The Sword with No Name gets bogged down in some terrible visual effects -- the fights have been majorly "enhanced" by computers. That means we get bad, fake-looking CGI backgrounds and camera moves that might have felt fresh back with The Matrix was using them. The visual effects throughout are actually lacking (an explosion at about the midway point is rather egregious), suggesting that perhaps the filmmakers spent a good deal of the budget on period detail and had little left over for anything else. Some of the fight scenes actually feel like an afterthought -- that the movie was once an interesting historical drama, but someone figured out that by tossing in several battles, it might help bring new eyes to the movie. It might even pay off, too, but I have to believe that anyone coming to The Sword with No Name for action is only going to be let down. Action-wise, the film simply can't compare to what a number of other Korean filmmakers are turning out these days.
While the movie might not totally work, the Blu-ray is a thing of beauty. The Sword with No Name makes its Region 1 debut courtesy of Funimation, who have done impressive work with the title. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is of reference-grade quality: colors are bold and gorgeous, black levels are deep and rock solid, fine detail is excellent throughout. It's a first-rate transfer, and it actually helps the movie seem better than it is (though I would argue it's less forgiving of the shaky visual effects than its DVD counterpart might be). Two audio options are available, and unfortunately the 5.1 mix contains the English dub. I tested it out for a few minutes, but basically ignored that option for the 2.0 TrueHD track featuring the original Korean dialogue. While obviously less dynamic than the full surround mix, the Korean track does fine with the dialogue and effects while still maintaining a purer and more accurate viewing of the movie. To be fair, though, this is coming from someone with a pretty low tolerance for dubbing, unless it's a last resort.
The bonus features are on the lackluster side. There's a 10-minute "making of" featurette, an assortment of interviews with the cast, a teaser spot and the finished theatrical trailer. A standard definition DVD copy is also included.
Gorgeous to look at, but a mixed bag otherwise.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 EX (English)
* TrueHD 2.0 Stereo (Korean)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy