Sword in the Moon

Reviewed by: Long Dang

March 04, 2005

Rating: three


Choi Min-su as Choi Ji-hwan
Jo Jae-hyeon as Yun Gyu-yeob
Kim Bo-kyeong as Kim Shi-yeong


In the spirit of highly acclaimed Korean period films like "Musa The Warrior" and "Bichunmoo" comes "Sword in the Moon" directed by Kim Ui-seok. This film is set in 17th century Korea following a revolt in the capitol of Seoul. Like "Bichunmoo", "Sword in the Moon" is also based on a best selling comic book.

The film opens with a pair of blood stained swords flying through the air. One of the swords lands in a puddle of water, in the middle of a group of warriors. A lone samurai warrior appears, before claiming the sword. He duels with all of the warriors and brutally slays them one by one. This samurai warrior is none other than General Yun Gyu-yeob (played by Jo Jae-hyeon). He is known as the 'human butcher' because of his ruthless and merciless methods of dealing with his opponents. He is also the Emperor's protector.

Following an assassination attempt on the Emperor later in the day and a spate of recent assassinations of the Ministers that had participated in the revolt and execution of the imperial guards, General Yun is ordered to hunt down and capture down those responsible. He reluctantly accepts his mission, mobilizing his troops to protect all of the Ministers and their family. But he does not seem to care too much about their safety. He advises his guards to do only what is necessary to fulfill their mission.

Later in the evening a grey haired assassin on horse back enters the capital. His face is well hidden under a bamboo rain hat. His eyes are as sharp as that of a hawk. That evening two corrupted Ministers are murdered in their own residence. One of them was killed whilst bathing with his wife by the grey haired assassin. The other was killed in his bedroom by a masked female assassin. The guards attempt to pursue after and capture the two assassins. But they fail. But General Yun does not give up easily as he pursues after the grey haired assassin. He finally caught up on the rooftop. But strangely General Yun does not confront the grey haired assassin. Instead he stands with a totally shocked and stunned expression on his face. The grey haired assassin takes the opportunity to escape.

When one of General Yun's subordinates informs him that the grey haired assassin's sword was engraved with the words "Sword in the Moon" on the side of the blade, he is immediately troubled. He goes to the library to search for clues before stumbling upon a likely answer. His earlier suspicions had been confirmed. The grey haired assassin was a former imperial guard and colleague of theirs named Choi Ji-hwan (played by Choi Mun-su). They were acquaintances long ago before the revolt.

Many days later Ji-hwan strikes again. He ambushes and murders a Minister under the protection of General Yun at the bamboo forest in broad daylight. General Yun immediately gives chase. He finally catches up with Ji-hwan at a clearing near a bridge. He advises Ji-hwan to leave Seoul and never return again, otherwise he would be forced to kill him. Ji-hwan rides forward and places the edge of his sword against General Yun's neck. General Yun shows no sign of resistance, as if he is almost begging for death. But Ji-hwan does not kill him however. Instead he rides off into the distance. It was a defiant act to show General Yun that he would not back off and would continue to murder the various Ministers who had participated in the revolt.

Ji-hwan would return to his secret hide-out between the mountains where he and his lover, Kim Shi-yeong (played by Kim Bo-kyeong) lived and resided. One evening, Shi-yeong left the mountain side to head into Seoul. She attempted to murder a high ranking official named Jung Yeo-kyoon. He was the man most responsible for the revolt and had betrayed Shi-yeong's father. But she fell into an ambush set by General Yun and was subsequently captured. Realising that his lover had been captured, Ji-hwan immediately sets out to save her. He battles with many skilled swordsmen before finally reaching the prison disguised as an imperial guard. General Yun had been guarding the prison. But once again, instead of confronting Ji-hwan, General Yun decides to let him go allowing Ji-hwan to save Shi-yeong.

As Ji-hwan rides off into the night, we learn through a flashback, that he and Jin-hwan both trained at the "Sword in the Moon" school of elite imperial guards. The school was called "Sword in the Moon" by the common people, as they hopped that the warriors would protect their well being and maintain peace in the country. The meaning behind the name, was that the "Sword in the Moon" prepares for a bright day. It was during their training that Ji-hwan had once saved General Yun's life during a battle with enemies. They become very good friends as a result, often testing their friendship and bravery under water, by seeing who could hold their breath the longest. The warriors at the "Sword in the Moon" clan were like a big family. Everyone got along with one another. During his time at the school, Ji-Hwan had also fallen in love with Shi-yeong, the daughter of the Headmaster, Kim-in.

Upon completion of their training, Ji-hwan and General Yun went separate ways. Ji-hwan returned to Seoul to guard the palace, whilst General Yun was sent to the Northern boarders to defend the country against the nomad invaders. Two years had passed when a revolt occurred in the capital of Seoul. General Yun and his men were immediately ordered to return to the capital to quell the rebellion. They were captured upon their return by the renegade faction lead by Jung Yeo-kyoon. Seeing his young troops being beheaded one after another, General Yun makes a deal with the leader of the renegades. That he would serve the renegades for the rest of his life, if they agreed to set his men free. The leader of the renegades agreed on the condition that General Yun lead the attack on the existing Emperor in Seoul and also murder his own master, Kim-in.

Left without a choice, General Yun killed Kim-in. He then lead the attack on Seoul, whipping out the other half of the "Sword in the Moon" clan in the process. He also stabbed a shocked and unprepared Ji-hwan who was charged with defense of the royal palace. Though seriously wounded by General Yun's blade, Ji-hwan managed to live through the night. He would later be rescued by Shi-yeong who pulled him away from the various dead corpses of his comrades. Having survived Ji-hwan vowed to take vengeance on all those who had taken part in the revolt. But he would not kill a single warrior from the "Sword in the Moon" clan. For they were like family to him. That's why Ji-hwan had gone on an assassination spree, killing all of the corrupted Ministers, whilst sparing the lives of the imperial guards who confronted him.

As Shi-yeong recovered from the injuries she had received whilst she was in prison, the arrogant Jung Yeo-kyoon upsets the Emperor. In the evening he is murdered by the Emperor's men. Meanwhile, General Yun's troops no longer want to live the life of shame that they have been living for the past few years. One of the soldiers commits suicide. By now General Yun's morale was extremely low. So low that he was prepared to drown himself in his own bath tub. But one of his concerned comrades revived him before he could complete his suicidal act. He is summoned to see the Emperor, who demands his protection for a ceremony when he?ll cross the river and be acknowledge as the Emperor of Korea. He suspects that the mysterious assassin would attempt to murder him on that day.

The Emperor's predictions are correct, as Ji-hwan rides along the bridge to scope out the scenery before the big day. He picks out a spot before returning to the cave. Concerned that Shi-yeong would follow him to his death, he drugs her. Shi-yeong passes out in the middle of her sentence where she explained that she had wished to avenge her father's death at first, but after many years all she wanted was Ji-hwan to look at her with love and affection again. Ji-hwan explains that he was a former shadow of himself since the night of the revolt. He felt shamed for wanting to live, and drinking the blood of the deceased to do so, instead of dying with his comrades like he should have done so.

Ji-hwan then disguises himself as a slave and attempts to murder the Emperor during the bridge crossing ceremony. But before he could do so, Shi-yeong, arrives at the scene and attempts to kill the Emperor herself. She fails, leading to Ji-hwan fail in his attempts as well. They are immediately surrounded by imperial guards. Despite battling bravely, Shi-yeong is finally slain. Before her death, she manages to obtain her wish. Ji-hwan looks at her affectionately for the first time since the revolt. She dies in peace. Ji-hwan battles on - a useless fight that he'll never win. But he tries never the less. He is stabbed many times, but does not die. At all times the Emperor watches with a sly smile, and a snicker here and there, knowing that he is completely safe from harm. Ji-hwan takes two arrows to the chest and continues to fight on.

At this stage, General Yun, rides on horse back to the middle of the battle. He advises Ji-hwan to let go of his sword and save himself. General Yun offered to die in his place. Ji-hwan finally agrees and sheaths his sword. General Yun places Ji-hwan on his horse and leads him towards the Emperor. He then gets down on his knees and begs the Emperor to spare them. Not wanting to be shamed and disgraced for a second time, Ji-hwan unsheathes his sword. At that moment, General Yun, finally realized that dying was better than living a life of shame. He too, finally unsheathes his sword and battles with the thousands of imperial guards protecting the Emperor. Ji-hwan is slained during the battle. But General Yun fights on. Whether he lives or dies, is no longer important. He had regained his honor. Ji-hwan like he has always done had finally saved him?

Rating - 3/5

This is the third Korean period film I've seen. I have to say that I'm not completely satisfied with how this story is told through numerous flashbacks. This technique is normally a master stroke in detective, murder mystery, and crime films, as it is a very useful way to twist and bend plots. However, I do not really see the purpose of flashbacks in a straightforward period film, where there is virtually no advantage to be gained in using this technique. In fact I thought this film would have had a greater impact on the audience had it been told from beginning to end without the flashbacks.

In my opinion the flashbacks really detracted from the film and virtually reduced character development to a mere zero. This leaves the audience scratching their heads about the various motivations of the various characters. In addition, it makes it harder for the audience to truly appreciate and relate to the characters and the various struggles. To fully understand this film one had to first deconstruct and make linear the storyline. This is one of the faults of the film. It would have been a greater story from start to finish without flashbacks.

As plots go, this film is really weak. There are plenty of holes in the plot, and it did not really tie up well at the end either. You basically had secondary characters being killed off without retribution of some kind to the murderer. This is unheard off. Also it is anti-climatical when one of the prime evil dudes, Jung Yeo-kyoon, gets killed before the end. Also what makes matter worse is that that he isn't even killed by any of the main characters. Though Jung Yeo-kyoon's death is ironical (i.e. that he is killed by the very man who he put on the throne) it leaves little for the main characters to do after his death. It makes Ji-hwan's quest to murder the Emperor and subsequent death even more senseless, particularly when the Emperor is being portrayed as someone who cares for the people. It doesn't particularly appease to the audience with the main hero is seeking to murder someone who is perceived as being a 'good' Emperor.

The love between Shi-yeong and Ji-hwan received little treatment. I felt this could have been further drawn out. As mentioned above, the ending is like most Korean period films where the hero goes on a senseless pursuit of death and in the process all the people they love are also killed. To die and to be saved at the same time is a rather intriguing theme. I must admit that I am not a fan of the ending of this film. It was just as much of a senseless ending as "Bichunmoo". If there was a true and significant purpose behind the death of the hero, like Siu Fung's death in "Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils" then I would understand it. The main character in that story, Siu Fung, died to save the people from suffering and war. But in this story, the main character, Ji-hwan, basically dies because he sought death as he was sick of living. That alone doesn't make a great ending - particularly, when he could have just retired and lived a secluded life with his lover, Shi-yeong. His quest basically ended when the evil Jung Yeo-kyoon was murdered. In instances where the hero is stubborn in the pursuit of death, it is not something that audiences (especially Western audiences) can relate to.

I'm not familiar with the actors or actresses, so can't really comment on them but I think they did a good job in portraying the emotion of the movie. Kim Bo-kyeong looked really pretty. That lake scene showed off her good figure. Choi Min-su brooded to much and was a little stiff at times. But I love those sharp eyes of his. Jo Jae-hyeon looked dashing. But I had trouble understanding what his character is about sometimes. Overall I thought the casting was good but I should mention that when I watch films, I watch it for the storyline, and not because my favorite actors/actresses are in it. Sometimes it is actually beneficial to watch movies where I don't have a clue as to who the various actors and actresses are.

The battle scenes in this film were okay. However, once again, the use of hand held cameras, quick cutting, and fast shifting camera movements do not equal quality fighting at the best of times. All it amounts to is seeing some random stunt men getting stabbed here and there. The most memorable duel was between General Yun and Ji-hwan by the fountain. But even that scene cannot be classified as a top notch fight in most period films.

The saving grace for this movie is the scenery and costumes. They were great. The sound track was okay, it even featured a weird version of the tune used in "Jaws". The theme song "Sword in the Moon" was excellent. There were two versions of that song, one in Korean and one in English. What I found really surprising was that my DVD only contained the English version of that song. I much preferred the Korean version that I heard in the background to the making of "Sword in the Moon" feature.

Overall, I really enjoyed watching this film. Despite what I said above, the film added some good variety to the normal period/wuxia films in my DVD collection. So at a minimum, I recommend this film as one worth watching. But once again its not a 'thinking man's' movie. The more you think, the more flaws you'll uncover in the plot. Just sit back and enjoy the fighting scenes, occasional nude girl, beautiful scenery (sometimes) and the theme music.

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