This Korean swordplay production is what A Man Called Hero should have been.
An intricately plotted storyline, strong characters and some exciting action choreography, all combine to great effect in this comic book-based movie.
Jinha (Shin Hyun-June) is a swordsman with exceptional ability - the last in the line of a group of practioners to Master the Bi Chun Shin Gi swordplay technique.
Unfortunately, Jinha's talent is the envy of many people, none more so than his childhood sweetheart's father - a powerful Mongol General.
After being separated from his love Sullie (Kim See-Hun), and being forbidden from seeing her again, Jinha is shown that his humble background isn't so humble after all, and sets about righting the wrongs committed against his family.
As fate would have it, as he walks the path of revenge he befriends a man who (unbeknownst to him) is now Sullie's husband - leading to a confrontation neither wants, but which neither can avoid.
Whilst the plot skips between its characters an almost dizzying number of times, with double-crossing rife throughout, Bichunmoo never-the-less grabs and holds your attention from start to finish.
Strangely, it's not Jinha's character that makes the biggest impression, but that of Sullie's husband King Namgung (Jeong Jin-Young).
On his first appearance, this arrogant man has few redeeming features, save his fighting ability. However, as events conspire against him, it becomes clear that he values love and friendship far above a quest for power.
His confrontations with Jinha, and Sullie, are particularly affecting, and its the handling of such complex relationships which raise the film above many similar swordplay movies.
CGI effects are prevalent throughout, but unlike Andrew Lau's Stormriders and A Man Called Hero, Director Kim Young-Jun's usage is far more intelligent.
Action-wise, the films choreography is similar to many Hong Kong products, mainly due to its direction by Hong Kong action -director Ma Yuk-Sheng.
Wire-work is used sparingly, in much the same vain as the special effects, to underline the exponents ability, rather than just to impress. Thankfully, it manages to do both.
The films success
however, comes not from great action sequences, or maturely executed drama, but from a masterful combination of the two.
The balance struck between each of these elements enhances both, resulting in characters you sympathize with, villains you despise, and action that sets your pulse racing.
*Knowing next to nothing about Korean film, on researching this movie I found that the version released in Korean cinemas was cut in order to please distributors. The version released here is similar to that truncated one, and whilst some aspects are made clearer by reading the information regarding the deleted scenes, I found that without knowing of the missing sequences, I was still able to enjoy it immensely.*
A quite superb image is presented throughout, which bursts with detail and colour.
It would not be an overstatement to liken its quality to that of many Western DVD releases, as the solid, crisp nature of the transfer makes for a very pleasing presentation.
Black levels are consistently impressive, with grain also being largely absent, making this one of HKL/Premier Asia's finest transfers in a very long time.
For those with suitably-equipped amps, the Korean DTS track is the only way to go.
The aggressive surround effects, largely hiss-free dialogue and superb soundtrack all sound that much sharper and more tightly placed than the 5.1 soundtrack.
As mentioned, Bichunmoo's beautiful, eclectic soundtrack is reproduced lovingly here, and wraps itself around you at times to enhance the films most affecting scenes.
The first DTS soundtrack to find its way onto HKL/Premier Asia's is a massive triumph, and if their future discs are to contain the same, then long may it continue.
Not speaking or understanding a word of Korean, I cannot comment on the translations other than to say that their style fits the period of the film perfectly. As such, no Westernization seems to have found its way into the subtitles, resulting in a very impressive translation.
On both discs of this special edition, Premier Asia have provided the same style of menu as found on their Hong Kong Legends DVDs, although they're of a particularly high standard.
Music and animated images are combined to good effect, and provide the necessary sheen to this feature-packed release.
A very impressive list of extras are provided on the second disc, although the Mike Leeder/Bey Logan double-hander commentary is the standout addition.
Their relaxed, chatty style, and combined knowledge of Eastern cinema make for the best commentary I've heard for a long time.
Below is a list of the extras provided on disc two:
All of these interesting, and lengthy, interviews include many behind the scenes shots, and are well worth your time.
UK Promo Trailer
Original Theatrical Trailer
Music Video - this is a somewhat disappointing addition, as the audio quality is rather weak, leading to a muffled-sounding presentation)
Production Photo Gallery
- 33 stills, including promotional artwork.
Premier Asia - Bang Rajan (trailer), Ichi: The Killer (release details), Musa (release details).
Hong Kong Legends - Swordsman (trailer), ZU: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (trailer) and Once Upon A Time In China 3 (trailer).
This wonderful addition by Premier Asia includes 14 of the film's songs for you to play at your own leisure.
Behind The Scenes
Candid Camera - 7 onset interviews with the cast and crew, including behind the scenes footage.
Shin Hyun-June - Text biography
Kim Hee-Sun - Text biography
Bichunmoo Film Notes - worth reading for the explanation regarding the version of the film Premier Asia were able to release.
Whilst a little more variation would have been welcome in the extras, there is none-the-less plenty here to keep viewers hooked long after they've watched the film itself.
A stellar DVD presentation of an excellent film is not something to be sniffed at, and if Premier Asia continue to uphold the high standards set here, film fans should have much to look forward to in the future.