Kim Young-jun's Bichunmoo (2000) has received a preliminary release date for the Gallic markets: July 7th.
Entirely shot in China, with a Hong Kong martial arts director and reputedly the biggest budget in Korean film history, "Bichunmoo" is an OK swordplay drama that suffers from earthbound direction and largely uncharismatic leads. Though an important production by local standards, pic doesn't have the necessary originality and barn-storming appeal to cut a sizable swath in international markets.
Backed by a big promo campaign, the film racked up a striking 750,000 admissions (about $3.75 million) in Seoul alone during five weeks' release starting July 1. Tally was just shy of the year's local B.O. champion, comedy-drama "The Foul King," but has since been blasted by the runaway success of "Joint Security Area," released in September.
Opening in 1343, at the end of the Yuan dynasty, when Mongols ruled China, movie is based on a popular five-volume manga from the late '80s by Korean writer Kim Hye-rin. Not for the first time when making pic versions of sprawling Asian comic books -- Hong Kong's "The Storm Riders" being a recent example -- massive simplification has been necessary to squeeze the story into two hours. Reportedly, several key scenes that explain the hero's later strategy were removed during post-production to keep the running time down, further adding to the story's confusion and unseemly haste.
Basic story is simple enough, with childhood sweethearts Jin-ha (Shin Hyeon-jun) and Sullie (Kim Heui-seon) becoming separated but vowing to wait for each other. She's the daughter of a Mongol general (Kim Hak-cheol) and a Chinese concubine; he's an orphan who, in the third reel, discovers from his teacher in the secret Bichun martial arts that he's the son of a Korean master swordsman whom Sullie's father annihilated years ago.
When Sullie's mother dies, her father sweeps her off to the family manor in Shaoxing and tries to wed her to a Mongol noble, Nam-gung Jun-kwang (Jeong Jin-yeong). Only when Jin-ha is apparently killed in a fight with Jun-kwang does Sullie agree to marry the latter.
In an over-compressed segment, Jin-ha is nursed back to health, takes on the alter ego of a bandit swordsman, Jahalang ("Violet-Rayed Wolf"), with his own team of warriors, and allies himself with anti-Mongol forces. He also seeks vengeance for his family. When he finally re-meets Sullie 10 years later, she has a son (Bang Hyo-up), and the dynamics of the childhood sweethearts' romance seem to have changed.
To anyone acquainted with Hong Kong swordplay movies, to which "Bichunmoo" clearly aspires, the film has an '80s look in terms of technique. Supervised by H.K.'s Joe Ma, the action sequences are generally good -- notably a nighttime assault by Jahalang's bat-like warriors on Sullie's family manor -- but largely rely on a limited menu of twists, rolls and explosive effects, rapidly cut. Actual swordplay is more Japanese in style.
Kim Heui-seon, a pretty but rather limited actress who debuted in the effects-laden "Ghost in Love" (1999), makes the most of the role of Sullie but seems constrained, like the rest of the cast, by first-time helmer Kim Yeong-jun's uninspired direction of dialogue sequences. In the main Jin-ha/Jahalang role, Shin is visually striking as a typical "heartless blade" hero, all hawklike looks and long flowing hair, but the script never gives him a chance to develop a real character that will make the central love story moving. Kim Jun-seon's melodic score only occasionally manages to fill in the gaps.
Other tech credits are good, with digital effects briefly bringing a Korean flavor to the movie during a fantasy sequence sketching the kids' transformation to adults. Korean title literally means "Heaven-Flying Dancing."
Original story, Kim Hye-rin. Camera (color), Byeon Heui-seong; editor, Lee Hyeon-mi; music, Kim Jun-seon; production designers, Yo Sang-man, Cheng Shaomian; art director, Zheng Chengming; martial arts director, Joe Ma. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Sept. 30, 2000. Running time: 117 MIN.