It's a sword and sorcery film, except better because you're not sure until halfway through whether the plot's magical elements are real or just the superstition of a bunch of tribesmen from ancient Korea. I liked the latter possibility. It makes the movie seem more horrifying, since the plot involves a magic sword that needs human sacrifices to attain its full power.
By Korean standards, this was a blockbuster. It's a big, good-looking historical movie that was the fourth highest-grossing Korean film of 2000. (It slips to sixth place in the domestic box office charts if you include foreign films, with Mission: Impossible II
and Gladiator coming in at two and three respectively.) However I've seen some slightly dismissive comments from people who seem to have been expecting something less intelligent, calling it a Korean version of Conan and then saying it doesn't measure up. Either they dislike the supernatural elements or they think it's slow and lacking in action.
Me, I thought it was outstanding, easily rising above genre expectations. I'd have appreciated a tad more clarity about who I'm looking at, who's died and who's sending out which bunch of warriors against whom, but the story's powerful enough that I can live with that.
It has a devastating beginning. A man and his pregnant wife are enjoying a peaceful moment together. Two minutes later, one of them's saying, "Go on, kill the baby." This is the first, but not last, example in the film of multi-layered treason and betrayal as a terrifying bastard either taunts or invites their spouse to murder them. I'm still not sure which. There are a lot of layers in that scene.
This kicks things off with a bang and soon afterwards we're getting some of the juiciest foley work I can remember in a cinematic sword fight. It's not just the clang of swords. Listen to the squishing as metal meets gut. I liked that too. This is a violent historical film with plenty of swordplay and brutality... but what's interesting, I think, is that the movie's real power comes when it's making anti-macho choices. The strongest scenes are when a warrior doesn't kill, or when he fights to lose. This is a drama, not an action movie. Characters face appalling decisions in a world where life is cheap and a sword is the simplest solution to all problems. Tribes want to exterminate other tribes, even when it's at the cost of being annihilated themselves. The fight scenes are ugly and impressive, yes, but there's not enough of them on their own to support a two-hour movie.
The film also asks some ugly questions about love, with sinister traitors in some senses taking the moral high ground. It's beautiful, but in an often horrible way. Here it's the men who prove to be at the mercy of their softer feelings, while women are the implacable, unsentimental ones with the inner strength to do what they think is right. Mi-suk Lee in particular is terrifying. She's not a monster and indeed, late in the day, the film gives her a justification I'd never expected for what she was doing. Nevertheless... whoah. That's a nasty ceremony. As an aside, could I ask why movie characters always choose the palms of their hands when cutting themselves for a blood ritual? Wouldn't it make more sense to cut somewhere that: (a) you don't use all day every day, and (b) isn't one of the body's biggest clusters of pain receptors?
The supernatural elements are understated. There's a holy mountain that favours one tribe over another, which has led to a power imbalance and long-term consequences. We've no idea exactly what this power is that dwells on Mt Holy, but whatever it is, it can throw airstrikes, fireballs and those CGI water tentacles from James Cameron's The Abyss. Humans in contrast are apes with swords. The nearest thing they have to higher technology is a cumbersome and extraordinarily bloodthirsty method for making another sword.
The film also never uses the word "magic". They say "holy" instead. This strikes me as clever.
The performances are appropriate for their setting. Sometimes an actor will be unreadable, hardly showing us any reactions... but that's not a problem. It fits. At other times, you're in no doubt whatsoever about the horror they're suffering. In addition two of the actresses here are worth particular notice. Yunjin Kim is a Korean-American who's also done a lot of work in English (e.g. Sun in Lost) and even some in Japanese (e.g. a film for Takahisa Zeze, which I'm presuming wasn't one of his pink ones). The other name though is a tragic one. Jin-shil Choi was one of Korea's biggest stars and practically a national symbol until she committed suicide in 2008. As far as I can tell she gave up show business on getting married to a baseball player, Jo Sung-min, only to divorce him four years later after being the victim of domestic violence. Furthermore her ex-manager, Bae Byeong-su, had been murdered in 1994 and other people close to her committed suicide around the same time as Choi herself: the husband of one of her close friends a few weeks earlier, then her younger brother a year and a half later.
The Gingko, incidentally, is a tree. It's a living fossil, of which there's only one surviving species. I'm also guessing there's a legend associated with it, as is suggested by this movie's title and also by the existence of a 1996 film called Gingko Bed.
I liked this film a lot. I wasn't always sure what was going on, mind you. All the men use the same tailor, shall we say, and it's not a movie that's particularly keen on exposition or on leading its audience by the hand. However despite that, I still thought it was impressive. It's powerful and serving up devastating emotional situations. It's very Korean. It's not the film to put on if you're looking for Conan the Barbarian
, but that's in no way a criticism. Ouch.