New for me
I wasn't entirely certain what to expect with The Sword with No Name because of director Kim Yonggyoon's rather short, but diverse filmography, having made a drama and then a horror film and with this title, a historical action film. However, after watching it, I feel like this film falls into a bit of the melodrama trap that many Korean historical action films fall into, like the intolerable Bichunmoo and the bloated Musa, failing to capitalize on its most interesting character, Empress Myungsung (Soo Ae), and concocting a rather limp love story with the much less interesting warrior protagonist. And the action is hit and miss in a very obvious way.
But first, the story revolves around Moomyung (Jo Seungwoo), an orphan-now-assassin who masquerades as a ferryman, who ends up offering a ride to a woman, Min Jayoung, and developing a fondness for her (and she for him), but who would shortly be destined to become Korea's queen. After saving her from some assassins and tussling with the new head of palace security, Nojeon (Choi Jaewoong), unable to forget her, he makes his way to the palace to become a guard. Meanwhile, court politics and foreign meddling, combined with Myungsung's openness to outsiders results in her life being both valued by the romantically neglectful king, but also threatened by political forces within the court as well as the Japanese, drawing in Moomyung into the politics and combat as he strives to protect his beloved and his queen.
There is a palpable problem with the script if the protagonist who we spend most of our time with is easily outshined by his love interest, to the point where we want to know much more about her and much less about him. While Moomyung is given a little backstory, his character is otherwise very simple and rather static, the only real tension he has to deal with is loving a woman that he could never have because of her position as the country's queen. But because the initial love story wasn't particularly well earned, it's quite difficult to believe any of the anguish he feels nor his desire for Jayoung. Furthermore, the court politics are rather muddy and while I appreciate that there are multiple forces at work, the film really doesn't do a good job of laying out these conflicts and drawing out the necessary doubt, tension and suspicion in such a way that it's exciting. In the end, this keeps the story from being particularly convincing, especially with the poorly motivated plot-driven character turns on the political side that really come across as forced.
What does work well is the general look of the film, with high quality production values, lovely costumes and art design, and mostly good handling of visual direction. With one glaring exception--during the fight scenes between Moomyung and Nojeon, the movie goes heavy on the CGI and becomes extremely exaggerated, which contrasts heavily with the more practical fight scenes in the rest of the film and results in a lot of incongruity with the overall look of the film. Furthermore, like in the second one of these fights, the setting even changes to some glacial palace and ends up looking about as convincing as if you took a videogame cutscene and inserted it into the movie. Fortunately, the rest of the action direction is pretty good. As for the acting, it's fair, but limited by rather shallow writing resulting in the actors needing to amp up their onscreen emotions to try to make up for the lack of believable drama and this ultimately just seems a bit hollow. The more casual moments at the beginning of the film aren't bad, but as the film reaches its climax, it all just becomes harder to believe. Even the more subtle music gets a little silly when the movie actively tries to turn on the drama and tension.
But that's not to say that The Sword with No Name is unbearable. In fact, it's definitely a bearable experience, but one that simply doesn't have enough of a story behind it to make it much more than that. With the exception of the out-of-place video game fight sequences, the action and aesthetics are actually quite good and with a leaner or better orchestrated story, it would all be an excellent support, but in this case, the action and aesthetics are the main attraction. I don't know if that's enough for someone that really values a story in their movies, but even with the thin story, it still does manage to string together the events without glaring plot holes, so maybe those that like pretty films with lots of fighting will still find something to enjoy in The Sword with No Name. Others won't miss much by not seeing it. 6/10.