The kingdom of Balhae is in turmoil. A new king must be found, so peace and prosperity can be brought back to the region, but assassins from Killer-Blade Army, sent out by the neighboring kingdom of Georan, have been busy murdering the royal family, and now there's only one rightful heir left: An exiled prince, Jeong-Heyon, who has turned his back on his destiny. The beautiful but deadly female warrior Yeon Soha is now sent out to find this last prince and bring him back, so Balhae can once again stand united against its enemies.
Soha manages to track down the prince to a small village on the outskirts of the kingdom, where he's now hiding under the name Sosam and operates a small business selling stolen goods. Time is of the essence, as the Killer-Blade assassins are not far behind, but Soha has little luck convincing the would-be prince that he should follow her. He refuses to go anywhere. Soon, though, the Killer-Blades discover Jeong-Heyon's hiding place, and on top of that he is betrayed by his body guards. After about eight assassination attempts in as many minutes the prince wises up and decide to follow Soha.
Now the soldier and the prince must travel across the country, with the Killer-Blade Army assassins hot of their trail. Destiny awaits in the horizon, but the journey is long and their pursuers are getting closer by the minute...
"Shadowless Sword" is director Kim Young-jun's second film. Five years ago he made the impressive but overly complicated "Bichunmoo" - another period piece - and I remember watching that film thinking "wow, if that guy could just simplify his story a little bit, he could make a really great film one day". I'm still confident that he can do that, but this film isn't it.
Don't get me wrong, "Shadowless Sword" is a gorgeous film on a very grand scale, filled with poetic images and bursts of raw violence, but the underlying story is just too simple. If you get past all the destiny crap, all the flashbacks and the hidden agendas, this is just a film about the good guys getting from point A to point B, before the bad guys get them.
Even though the story is kept fresh by comic relief and a great chemistry between the two leads, some viewers might still find it a tad boring. There's just not enough friction and opposition build into the story to sustain a two hour running time. And it doesn't help that the film grinds to a halt more than once to give our heroes a chance to share some childhood memory by the campfire.
On the plus side, you're spared the thankless task of keeping track of two dozen names and faces, like you had to with "Bichunmoo". The simple story is easy to follow, and the characters are easy to identify.
But of course all this is irrelevant. The main attraction is the fights and they are truly spectacular. This is the type of swordplay that was so prominently featured in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", where the combatants glide through the air in an impressive display of gravity defying acrobatics. Once the swords are drawn the fighters spend more time in the air than on the ground. It's a style we've seen many times before, but not so much recently and I've kind of missed it.
The fight scenes reminded me of a "Mortal Kombat"-style computer game - The choreography doesn't change all that much, but the venues sure do. First we're i a town square, then a cave, then a yard and so on, and so on. This is why the film could easily sustain my interest. The fights are varied, the locations are beautiful, plus there's these really cool death at the end of each fight. Sometimes people are cut in half or spontaneously explode after delivering that suitably surprised "huh?"-look in a close-up. Good stuff. And get this: There's even a scene where our heroes jump into the water to escape and when they're followed by a couple of assassins the fighting continues... under water! Yes, There's an actual underwater sword fight here, people! You gotta respect that!
A lost prince, a race between good and bad, people fighting while jumping though the air. Yes, "Shadowless Sword" is often stupid, over the top and pompous. But it's also pure unadulterated mindless entertainment.
It's a feast for the eyes - The film looks like a million bucks - and before you get a chance to think about why prince X took sword Y in this and that battle, people are jumping through the air again, and you'll be too busy just trying to remember to breathe.