Attractively photographed & costumed, perfectly scored, the stylized swordplay behind the opening credits of the South Korean period film Sword in the Moon (Cheongpun myeongwol, 2003) is about 90% realistic. It is brutal killing rather than cartoony flying & h'yahing that dominate Hong Kong wuxia swordplay films.
When on the second occasion swords are drawn, it's once again so save & real, ending in one of the grisliest beheadings I've evern seen.
I was just so amazed, as one expects such realism only from a serious Japanese swordplay drama, not from Korean or Chinese directors, especially in an avowed fantasy.
For once, blessedly, a director wanted the swordplay in a heroic film to resound with plausibility, rather than a context to make martial arts increasingly absurd.
That's not to say the film is realistic overall, but with gloomy cinematography & excellent fight choreography it's more than corny kid stuff. Wuxia fans used to campiness of Hong Kong & Taiwan equivalents may actually become disoriented by an example that is a relentlessly dour melodrama.
Swordsman Choi Ji-hwan (Choi Min-su) was a hero of the Clear Wind Shining Moon military school which protected the Josean Dynasty.
Before his apparent death, Ji-hwan promised to return to kill his enemies. Five years later, an assassin is doing some exceedingly bloody work within the palace. Courtiers are scared witless.
Our antihero Yoon Gyu-yup (Cho Jae-hyun), who had been commanded to to do the beheading, & subsequently became hard-nosed & cruel.
As the protector to the Emperor, he feels his own significance. As a snooty bodyguard he's known to kill first & ask questions never. He resents being drawn away from his important job to ease the fears of mere courtiers afraid of a ghost.
Gyu-yup is a marvelous swordsman, but blunt even with some of his superiors, & has few friends.
He pursues his duty with profound devotion, & as the Emperor appreciates him, he's pretty much above reproach no matter his behavior.
Jae-hyun & Gyu-yup had formerly fought side by side against Japanese invaders. It must've been at that time that Jae-hyun adopted the katana (Japanese sword) as his weapon of choice.
Another signal character is the ninja-like girl Shi-yeong (Kim Bo-kyeong), a great fighter, very strong, daughter of the assassinated Kim-In (Cho Sang-keon) who had been the leader pf Clean Wind Shining Moon sect.
There was a time when both Ji-hwan & Gyu-yup competed with one another for her love. When she is captured & tortured, we wonder if will be Ji-hwan who comes to her rescue. Or will our Gyu-yup go against his own Lord Master to save the girl.
The action continues to be a marvel. Ji-hwan's duel in the burning grass with a chain-and-sickle fighter is too cool.
His & the girl's final raid to get the official who ordered the beheading is another credibly choreographed, stylishly filmed feast of brutality, & very deeply tragic.
The "reunion" of Ji-hwan & Gyu-yup for the last stand had me in tears, a love story of two veritable brothers torn asunder by the politics of their age.
The film certainly has faults. The plot, alas, is frequently incomprehensible, with flashbacks to the back-story confusingly edited. Plus the version I saw was dubbed out of Korean into Chinese, well done as dubbing goes but still with a decided disonance.
Had there been greater clarity to what should've been a fairly simple revenge piece, Sword in the Moon might've been a classic. As it stands, it's better than 99% of wuxia just for refusing to be silly.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl