Oh pity the terrible fate of Korea's poor Queen Min, destined to die on the end of a Japanese sword in 1895. I was just reading about this incident, the result of palace intrigue and treacherous conspiracy, so this film, an historical drama based on the life of Queen Min, was of immediate interest.
The Sword With No Name (2009) is based on a novel, and, as is the wont of novelists, there is a fictitious character placed at the nexus of things. In the film adaptation, he is Moo-myeong (Jo Seung-woo), a country bumpkin with mad sword skills. Frankly, the character is sketchy at best; we first encounter him snoozing in a boat, waking to gaze, love-at-first-sightedly, at the young, soon to be queen (Soo Ae). Later we're supposed to get that he's really an ace assassin. He gets the gig to murder the beautiful young woman (but of course he's way too in love to do the deed).
Frankly, the film is downright choppy in parts; pivotal scenes are almost elliptical in their execution, leaving the audience struggling to make sense of it all. I got the impression that there was a lot of assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. After all, the story of Queen Min would be a familiar one for most Korean moviegoers. However, Korean film these days is usually geared for an international audience, so such cultural/narrative insularity is surprising. Or maybe director Kim Yong-gyun just isn't much cop at this sort of thing … ?
Moo-myeong devotes his life to protecting his beloved queen, becoming a castle guard to be closer to her. Obviously, things don't end well. It's a doomed lovers tale made all the more poignant when you know what's in store for Queen Min. Along the way there's plenty of sword action and the performances are terrific. Jo Seung-woo overcomes the vagueness of his character with sheer force of will, fleshing him out and making him someone you can get behind. Soo-ae says more with a teardrop than most actresses and Cheon Ho-jin is great as her father-in-law and arch enemy, the scheming Daewongun.
Overall, I'd recommend The Sword With No Name. It's drawbacks are occasionally annoying, but ultimately there's far more good stuff here than bad, plus thrilling fight sequences, tender love scenes, melodrama, conspiracy, turn-of-the-century culture mash-ups (the queen trying on a corset, interacting with Europeans, etc.) and some excellent beheadings. To enhance your experience, I'd advise a bit of brush up on the period. Do a search on Queen Min or Empress Myeongseong (as she was also called), or, even better, read this book. As in all things in life, a little prep goes a long way.
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