Bichunmoo was one of the most popular domestic South Korean films of 2000 – as well as one of the most costly – and its success paved the way for the even more spectacular Musa (aka The Warrior) a year later. Nevertheless, were it not for the Korean cast you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Chinese production. This is an old-fashioned tale of doomed love and warring tribes, set in ancient China, with extravagant sword-play sequences orchestrated by Hong Kong fight-choreographer Ma Yuk-sheng.
The central romance concerns Jinha (Hyeon-jun Shin) and Sullie (Hee-seon Kim), close friends from early childhood who grow into young adults with strong feelings for one another. Unfortunately, Sullie's father is a Mongol general who has big plans for his daughter and marries her off to a powerful warlord. Jinha isn't best pleased at this, and to further complicate matters, Sullie has given birth to his son and is raising him with her new husband.
This is a simple, potentially moving story that needed a simple, direct narrative approach. That's not what you get though – in adapting a six-part comic book series writer/director Young-jun Kim has created an almighty mess, jarring plot developments and muddled characterisation diminishing any emotional impact. The Jinha/Sullie relationship is established early, but far too much happens in the first 45 minutes. Sullie gets hitched, Jinha discovers her dad murdered his family, a gang of big-hatted warriors attempt to learn the secret of Jinha's amazing sword-fighting skills, Jinha is killed and then returns (with his own little army) in a very bad mood, some other woman makes eyes at our troubled hero, and various characters march in and out of rooms making dramatic announcements. Nothing happens that's not a major plot point, and the film lurches from one big scene to the next – although not necessarily in chronological order – with little regard for pace or flow.
More successful are the action scenes, and although there's nothing here we've not seen before, they are competent enough. Jinha has a nifty trick in which he can make his enemies' bodies literally split in half without even touching them, and there's a thrilling opening battle as Jinha and his men storm a beach and set about decimating the warlord's army. But in the end Bichunmoo aspires to be more than just any old martial arts flick. The film has real visual panache and the two young leads try their best to bring the love story to life; unfortunately Young-jun Kim lacks that deft touch needed to combine the epic with the personal, and emerges with a film seriously lacking in both departments.
Aka: Bichunmoo: Warrior of Virtue, Flying Warriors
[Premier Asia's Region 2 DVD is as extra-packed as you'd expect from Hong Kong Legends' sister label. There's interviews with director and star, a promotional archive, out-takes and behind the scene footage, and featurettes on both the visual effects and the stunt work. There's also a hugely entertaining commentary from resident martial arts buffs Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, who have so much to stay about the genre that they rarely stay on the subject of Bichunmoo for more than a few minutes at a time.]