With the runaway international success of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000 and 2001, the wu shu ('fantasy swordplay') epic has become increasingly crowded with filmmakers and studios trying to cash in on the craze. Miramax, having acquired a sizable catalog of Hong Kong films, dusted off 1993's "Iron Monkey (Siunin Wong Fei-hung tsi titmalua)" last fall, and will be releasing Tsui Hark's "Legend of Zu (Shu shan zheng zhuan)" (re-edited and renamed as "Zu Warriors") directly to video later this year. Meanwhile, Chinese director Zhang Yimou ("The Road Home") is in the midst of shooting "Hero", an all-star martial arts epic that brings together Jet Li ("The One"), Maggie Cheung ("In the Mood for Love"), Tony Leung ("Tokyo Raiders"), and Zhang Ziyi ("Rush Hour 2"). And Sammo Hung, formerly of the defunct TV series "Martial Law", is in the process of releasing his own "Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger".
However, one of the first films to jump on the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" bandwagon was the South Korean film "Bichunmoo" from 2000. Billed at the time as the 'most expensive Korean movie ever made' (a claim which has now been eclipsed by "Joint Security Area"), first-time director Kim Yeong-jun has created a technically proficient and decidedly Korean take on Hong Kong fantasy swordplay films. Unfortunately, "Bichunmoo" never becomes more than a sum of its parts with its lackluster story, manipulative melodrama, and unimpressive action sequences.
Based on a very popular Korean comic book from the Eighties, "Bichunmoo" opens up in 1343 (about three decades before the events depicted in "Musa"), when China was under the rule of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, and tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, orphan Jin-ha (Shin Hyeon-jun of "The Siren") and Sullie (Kim Heui-seon of "Calla"), the daughter of a Mongol general Taruga (Kim Hak-cheol). Taruga, wishing to form an alliance, gives his daughter's hand to Mongol nobleman Namgung Jun-kwang (Jeong Jin-yeong, who would once again spar off against Shin Hyeon-jun in "Guns & Talks"). However, when Jin-ha tries to stop Sullie's betrothal, he is apparently killed by Taruga's bodyguards. Thinking that her childhood sweetheart is now dead, Sullie agrees to the marriage.
Unknown to Sullie, Jin-ha survives the scuffle and learns a secret about his past-- he is the long-lost heir of a famous Korean nobleman who was slain by Taruga many years ago. In addition, Jin-ha possesses the secrets to the most powerful martial arts of them all, the Bichun arts of Koryu (ancient Korea). Determined to exact his revenge, Jin-ha changes his name to Jahalang and raises his own band of warriors, who like him, have the ability to glide through the air or make enemies explode.
Meanwhile, ten years have gone by, and Sullie and Namgung now have a son named Sung (Bang Hyoup). With the help of Chinese allies, Jin-ha invades the Taruga stronghold and slays Sullie's father. Despite completing this act of vengeance and being reunited with his long-lost love, there is no rest for Jin-ha. In addition to the imminent return of Namgung, who is off fighting a distant war, there are many who wish to steal the Bichun secrets, some of whom are among Jin-ha's allies...
The production values of "Bichunmoo" are top notch, with director Kim instilling a cinematic look to the film with the effective use of lighting and lensing. Kim also makes use of CGI in a particularly stunning sequence where Jin-ha and Sullie grow from childhood to adulthood as the seasons change around them. And to successfully emulate the swordplay films of Hong Kong, Joe Ma ("A Chinese Ghost Story") was brought on board to choreograph the martial arts sequences. Indeed, some of the fight sequences are impressive (even by Hong Kong standards), such as a nocturnal assault on the Taruga stronghold that has Jin-ha and his black-clad warriors swooping over pagoda rooftops. Unfortunately, most of the film's fights quickly degenerate into the opponents jumping around and doing spin kicks ad nauseum, or Jin-ha merely blowing everyone up, eschewing any of the grace (not to mention sense of purpose) that Ang Lee meticulously worked into "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
However, the biggest disappointment with "Bichunmoo" is the silly script, particularly in the film's latter half when Jin-ha becomes Jahalang, with main characters appearing from out of nowhere and plot points not clearly explained. The film's uninspired dialogue is another sore point, leaving it up to the film's melodramatic score to highlight the story's emotional cues for the audience. However, even more troubling is how emotionally manipulative the story becomes as it tries to create a big tear-jerking scene every so often. Jin-ha must have more lives than a cat, given how many times he 'dies' in "Bichunmoo", only to be miraculously brought back to life a few minutes later. Not to be outdone, the script toys with the audience by apparently killing off Sullie, only to retract it later on.
As Jin-ha/Jahalang, Shin is the typical lone wolf warrior, whose face betrays no emotion, says little, and spends most of his time trying to look cool, as that is about all the script lets him do. Kim Heui-seon, who is considered one of Korea's most beautiful women, is not entirely convincing as the heroine conflicted between her marriage vows to Namgung and her undying love for Jin-ha. As the third player in the love triangle, Jeong Jin-yeong jettisons the cynical demeanor that served him so well in "Ring Virus" and "Guns & Talks" and essentially plays it straight as the honor-bound Namgung, leaving little of an impression.
Fans of the Hong Kong wu shu genre will probably find "Bichunmoo" somewhat enjoyable, as it tries very hard to emulate it. Unfortunately, this ambitious production will likely trigger unintentional bouts of head scratching, hilarity, and yawning with its confusing plot, hackneyed script, flat acting, and monotonous fight sequences. One particularly harsh Internet film critic likens watching the film to 'the same feeling one would have when he runs out of a burning house with his hair on fire'. "Bichunmoo" is not quite that bad... at least not with the part about the hair being on fire.