This must be my favorite pulp movie or at least one of my favorites. Shadowless Sword 무영검/無影劍 is extremely well-made fun, loaded with historical and contemporary references and with those rare actors who under the right direction gracefully bear the load of impressive action scenes and tongue-in-cheek acting.Shadowless Sword is a traditional muhyeop or wuxia 武俠 movie.
You take a number of extraordinarily gifted warriors who skilfully mastered all kinds of esoteric martial techniques and weaponry, place them in a fantastic or fantastically reimagined historical setting and you have them fight each other to decide the fate of the country/world/universe. Shadowless Sword is different from the generic muhyeop on account of its high production values, its excellent cast and the fact that the swordplay in the movie relates to off-screen warfare between Korea and China about the pasts of what is now Manchuria.
In Shadowless Sword, Parhae female warrior Soha (played by the incomparable Yoon So-Yi 윤소이 of Arahan) is sent out to find, protect and bring back the last remaining pretender to the Parhae throne, Dae Jeong-hyeon 대정현 (played by Yi Seo-jin 이서진). He turns out to be a petty crook, long estranged from his royal roots. What ensues is an entertaining, though wholly predictable quest for the pretty and impressively fighting Soha to escape their ruthless enemies, while working on the unwilling crown prince to accept his destiny. The ruthless enemies here are really ruthless. Played by Shin Hyeon-Jun 신현준 (who also played in director Kim Young-jun’s 김영준 last epic flick, the dramatically bad Bichunmoo 飛天舞), Parhae defector Gun Hwa-Pyung 군화평 is a deliciously evil warrior, aided in his sinister machinations by the beautiful but deadly Mae Yung-ok 매영옥 (Yi Gi-yeong 이기영). They murder and ransack on behalf of the conquering Khitan barbarians, who are even more evil than Gun Hwa-Pyung and his band of murderers.
The budget for this more or less historical re-enactment was fabulously high and it shows in the high production values. The Khitan did actually invade and conquer Parhae in the tenth century, establishing the Liao empire. Although now a part of the People’s Republic of China, both Korea’s claim Parhae as a Korean kingdom and a historiographical war has been raging between China and Korea for some years now. This makes this movie even more interesting, since it clearly establishes Parhae as Korean, while it is a Chinese-Korean co-production. I’ll leave the significance of this for others to establish, but the contested historical background gives this movie an extra edge, although I do think that the consistent portrayal of the Khitan as bloodthirsty barbarians is getting a bit hackneyed.
Okay, back to the movie. It’s great. Yes, it’s utterly predictable, but the fights look awesome, in particular those between the female warriors, the sets are impressive and the actors look like they are having fun while whooping ass. Yoon So-Yi is a revelation in this physically demanding role. After 15 minutes you know she can kick about anyone’s ass and look good doing it. Shin Hyeon-jun is also much more effective as a brooding lord of evil than as a brooding righteous knight (such as he was in Bichunmoo). The historical background adds rather than detracts from the movie’s entertainment value, but the director also succeeded in creating a contained world (such as one expects in a proper muhyeop) in which the characters act and maintain relationships (and share pasts) with each other. This achievement (which went horribly wrong in the rightly much-maligned Bichunmoo) enables the viewer to connect with the characters on a more concrete and intimate level than that of historical re-enactment. The result? Unadulterated, first-class pulp. If you have a beautiful female warrior, a wayward but funny lost crown prince, two doomed love stories, a brooding bad guy with a beautiful sidekick, invading barbarians, a lost kingdom and a host of improbable warriors (watch the monk!), there is frighteningly little else you need. Yup, this is masterly pulp.