During the late 19th century in Korea, the Daewungon, Yi Ha-eung (Jeon Ho-jin), acted as regent during the reign of his young son, King Gojong (Kim Young-min), 26th king of the Joseon dynasty. The Daewungon was an isolationist and rabidly anti-Catholic. When Gojong reached marriageable age, he took Min Ja-young (Su-Ae) as his wife. Foreign powers, however, were fighting for influence in Korea, most especially the Japanese. Queen Min, a reformer, used the Russians to block the Japanese. In October 1895, pro-Japanese assassins entered the royal palace and murdered Queen Min. She was posthumously awarded the name Empress Myeongseong. The Sword With No Name (aka: Bool-kkott-cheo-reom na-bi-cheo-reom) is Queen Min’s story. And it is epic.
Moo-myoung (Cho Seung-woo) was brought up a Catholic, but the Daewongun’s anti-Catholic forces murdered his mother before his eyes. Now a young man, he earns his living as a bounty hunter. One day, he is relaxing on his boat, when a young woman approaches him and asks him to take her to the sea. He agrees, poles her along the river in his punt, and even accompanies her onto the beach. The young woman, Min Ja-young, reveals that she is to be made consort of the king, and that she is afraid… Assassins attack the couple, but Moo-myoung fights them off. The king’s troops, led by Noe-jeon (Choi Jai-woong), then arrive and carry Min ja-young off to the royal palace.
But Moo-myoung has fallen in love with her. So he presents himself at the palace and asks to join the guard. In order to prove himself, the Daewongun tells him he must be a human guinea pig in a test of a bullet-proof vest. Moo-myoung survives the test, and so becomes a guard; but it is a while before Queen Min learns of his presence. She, meanwhile, has been meeting with foreign ambassadors, and has drawn up a treaty with the Russians in order to forestall Japanese incursions into Korea. She also introduces electricity to the country.
But the Daewongun, who has sided with the Japanese, is unhappy with Queen Min’s actions. He raises an army and attacks the royal palace. Moo-myoung single-handedly prevents them from taking the palace. But he cannot stop the Japanese-led assassins, and though he fights to the death, they manage to kill the queen.
The Sword With No Name is a historical biopic of Queen Min, but it is also a martial arts movie and a love story. The broad strokes of the story are true to history, and the film has certainly made an effort to present itself as historically accurate. The romance between Queen Min and Moo-myoung occupies the centre of the story, accompanied throughout by an orchestral score of sweeping strings. Also important to the story is the rivalry between Moo-myoung and Noe-jeon, a tool of the Daewongun, both of whom are the best sword-fighters in Korea.
During the film they have several clashes. One sword-fight, which takes place in the main audience chamber of the royal palace before a host of foreign guests, becomes a martial arts battle on a night-time ice field, with all the swooping camera moves and wirework expected of any self-respecting wu xia or martial arts film of the 21st century. Of course, when Moo-myoung stands up to the Daewongun’s army in the final battle, Noe-jeon sees the errors of his ways and steps up beside him.
But then, if there is a criticism to be levelled at The Sword With No Name, it’s that the character stories which comprise its plot tend to follow well-worn grooves. It’s not that the cast comprises stock parts, but that the story is one which has been played out many times in many different eras in many different countries. Perhaps, by pushing the romance between Queen Min and Moo-myoung to the fore, this has flattened what were real historical personages into stereotypes.
None of which actually detracts from the film. The Sword With No Name is stirring stuff. Queen Min and Moo-myoung are sympathetic and engaging leads (although Queen Min was considerably younger than played when she married King Gojong in real life), and the production design evokes the historical period convincingly. The scene in which the Daewongun attacks the royal palace with his army is especially impressive. The only odd note is the framing of the sword-fights between Moo-myoung and Noe-jeon as if they were something out of a fantasy or wu xia. Though the fights are choreographed and played with skill, they don’t seem to fit in what is essentially a historical movie.
Nonetheless, The Sword With No Name is an epic tale, a visual treat, and an interesting story taken from the history of feudal Korea.