Eyeliner. Some men can wear it, and some men really just shouldn’t. I mentioned this at the very top of the review because, if you watch Shadowless Sword, you’ll be able to see how this rule applies to about half the actors in Korea.
That’s not to say that you won’t enjoy it. There’s a lot of sword-waving, swash-buckling, high kicks, and all the other staples of historical adventure fantasy. But the eyeliner can be a mite distracting. It’s as though director Kim wanted something to indicate either exotic foreign-ness or general moral laxity: the prince appears first with full panda eyes, but as the film progresses he becomes less and less kohled, and more and more regal.
I have to say early on, full disclosure and all, that I’d watch any amount of Shin Hyun-june, and watch with a goofy smile on my face to boot. He’s got dollops of presence, which he uses to maximum dramatic effect, saying more with an expressionless glance than many others can with screaming histrionics. This performance borrows a lot from his turn in Bichunmoo, also from the same director, although here his darkly brooding countenance is solely villainous. He broods well, does Shin. He glowers. He smoulders. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that I may not be entirely dispassionate about this film.
It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, so I won’t even try. Like Bride, this is set in the far historical past, more than a thousand years ago, lavishly spicing the real history with myth. Like Bride, the visuals are dramatic and stunning, with night scenes lit by ruddy torchlight and costumes designed to flutter in flight. And, like Bride, this is clearly a world of wuxia, where heroes and villains fly, where swords make heads leap from bodies and shatter walls and iron stoves, and where everyone who’s anyone has special martial powers.
Unlike Bride, however, the central theme is not that of love betrayed, but of loyalty and determination. Although there are a few nods in the direction of nookie, mostly later in the film, this mainly just adds texture to the loyalty of the chosen few. And I must say that it’s nice to see a film, however flawed, that focuses on the characters beside and behind the throne. The King himself is merely a postscript, an afterthought, whose ultimate destiny is to be paraded like Henry V before the castle walls. It’s encouraging to see a film-maker who believes that history is not always made by those who write it (or pay for it to be written): sometimes those whose names survive achieve lasting fame only because their lives have been impacted by others. A nice counterpoint to the ‘Great Man’ theory of history.
The King-in-chrysalis is not anyone’s idea of a great man, at least until considerably later in the film. Although a fine strapping lad, he’s not at all convinced of the need to rush off and be King, despite Soha’s determination. And it must be said once again that eyeliner does not suit all men: at times, he looks as though he’s been cleaning the grate or has missed several weeks of sleep.
I can’t honestly say that it’s a rivetting story. I can’t honestly say that there are any particularly appealing or interesting characters. And I can’t honestly say that any of the performances stand out, although Yoon Soy, as the determined and stubbornly loyal Soha manages best, perhaps because of prior martial experience from Arahan. But it’s entertaining, has some pretty sets, costumes, and CGI, and for those like me, has an acceptable amount of Shin Hyun-june. Thank all that’s holy that they opted for the sensibly braided warrior hairstyle, instead of the Rockabilly quiff featured on the original Korean DVD cover. It would have been hard even for me to credit a villain who’s constantly in danger of poking out his own eye every time he moves.