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Bichunmoo (2001)

Bichunmoo: Warrior of Virtue, Flying Warriors, Out Live

A legendary story of swordsmans love and fate.

Directed by:

Kim Young-jun

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 113 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: Korea (South)

‘Wuxia’ is a Chinese genre of epic which combines history, politics, martial arts and mysticism, and in China and Hong Kong it represents a long-established and somewhat overcrowded market in film. See a wuxia for the first time, however, and it is hard not to be thrilled by its stylised fusion of highflying swordplay and sweeping romance – which goes some way to explaining why two wuxia films released in the same year were met with shrugging indifference in China, but were huge box-office successes in countries unfamiliar with the genre. Western audiences embraced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) because nothing like it had ever before appeared on their big screens – while South Koreans flocked to see ‘Bichunmoo’, their country’s first homegrown wuxia, adapted from Kim Hye-rin’s popular six-volume comic book. Soon, however, fans of the original comic started complaining about the mess which the film had made of it – for while Crouching Tiger… may have been a much more derivative film than many Westerners realised, at least it benefited from Ang Lee’s great assurance and experience as a director, whereas the equally derivative ‘Bichunmoo’, which was the feature debut of young director/co-writer Kim Young-jun, is a clumsy and immature affair, second-rate not just as a wuxia but as a piece of narrative film-making.

China, 1343. Orphaned as a baby, Jin-ha (Shin Hyun-june) is, without knowing it, the last survivor of a Korean bloodline which had perfected the deadly Bi Chun fighting style and preserved its secrets in a book. The adolescent Jin-ha and Sullie (Kim Hee-Sun) are in love, but by a cruel twist of fate Sullie’s father is the Mongol general who had wiped out Jin-ha’s family, and he is determined both to murder Jin-ha and to steal the Bi Chun secrets. When Jin-ha is apparently killed, Sullie reluctantly agrees to marry his betrayer Nam (Jeong Jin-young). Years later Jin-ha reemerges as Ja Ha Rang, and leads his band of rebel fighters on a course of revenge, but his abiding love for Sullie and for the young son he never knew he had leads him to one final bloody stand-off that will return him to Sullie forever.

‘Bichunmoo’ features a plot full of incident and complication, but the flatness of its characters (starting with the taciturn Jin-ha who spends most of his time staring gravely into the middle distance) makes it difficult for viewer to maintain interest. The film has suffered considerably from what the Chinese might call ‘death by a thousand cuts’, reduced by the studios from the director’s first edit of three hours and forty minutes, so that at times the abbreviated narrative seems not so much elliptical as just incoherent (especially in the transition from Jin-ha’s apparent death to his return). This near two-hour version, however, is already sufficiently tedious and repetitive in its meandering melodrama to render the prospect of any additional footage pretty uninspiring. Despite the participation of famous Hong Kong fight choreographer Ma Yuk-Sheng, the film’s action sequences, performed mostly by Korean actors with no martial arts skills, are decidedly lacklustre compared to what many Chinese films with much lower budgets have to offer in high-kicking wirework.

Yet if ‘Bichunmoo’ is something of an also-ran in the world of wuxia, it should be credited with paving the way for later, much better Korean historical epics like Kim Sung-su’s ‘The Warrior’ (2001).

It's Got: Men in big hats; mythic romance; an instruction manual for martial arts (which the actors themselves might have benefited from reading); a warrior with exploding balls; a soundtrack featuring occasional hard-rocking bursts of electric guitar.

It Needs: A more interesting lead character; a more coherent narrative; better fight sequences.

DVD Extras Disc one includes: digitally remastered 16:9 Anamorphic version enhanced for widescreen TVs; scene selection; choice of Korean dts/Korean Dolby digital 5.1/English dub; optional subtitles (English/SDH/Dutch); full audio commentary by Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, beginning with Logan saying "I thought it was Bitch & Moo...a biopic about Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown", after which they talk mostly about the influence of Hong Kong cinema. Disc 2 includes: interview with shy director/co-writer Kim Young-jun (28min) who ends "I thank you for listening to my boring story"; interview with lead actor Shin Hyun-june (18min) who confides "I suffered from sadness while acting"; interview with action director Ma Yuk-Sheng (18min) who complains about the hopelessness of the Korean cast in the fight scenes and admits that the film is "nothing special"; trailers; music video; production photo gallery; music library (14 tracks); behind-the-scenes (CGI montage/candid camera/outtakes); biographies of Shin Hyun-june and Kim Hee-sun; filmnotes describing four short scenes cut from the final print and now lost (one of which, alas, was crucial to the coherence of the narrative). Note that Bichunmoo is now available together with The Warrior in a Premier Asia boxset. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Warrior, Volcano High

Summary

South Korea's first foray into martial arts epic is nothing special.

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