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Although South Korean cinema continues to thrive in the Far East, and is now blossoming in the Occident too, it is still rare to find a dedicated European R2 release. This is all set to change with Hong Kong Legends’ sister label Premier Asia set to bring the best that Japan, Thailand and Korean movies have to offer.

The first of these is Bichunmoo, a Korean blockbuster from 2000. What sets this movie apart from the two other recent box office behemoths, Shiri and Joint Security Area, is that Bichunmoo does not directly address the issue of a divided Korea. In fact, this period swordplay fantasy is not even set in Korea…

In 14th century China, just after the rule of Ghengis Khan, poor peasant orphan Jin-ha (Shin Hyune-june) spends his time with the girl he loves, the fiery Sullie (Kim Hee-sun). Her father, the Mongol general Taruga, is none too impressed with the impending association of the star crossed lovers due to Jin-ha’s lowly status, keen as he is to marry Sullie off to the powerful King Namgung (Jeon Jin-young) to strengthen his fading political interests.

Taruga separates the childhood sweethearts by devising a nefarious plot to have Jin-ha killed; heartbroken, Sullie reluctantly agrees to the marriage. However, unknown to all the Mongols, Jin-ha survives the attempted assassination. Nursed back to health, Jin-ha learns that he is actually the long lost son of a great family, annihilated for political purposes by Taruga some years previously, and heir apparent of the invincible Bi Chun Shi Gu sword style.

Of course many of the competing clans wish to take control of the sole surviving master manuscript and now that Jin-ha’s real heritage is known, he’s in even more danger than when recognised as his previous incarnation. Assimilating complete control of the Bichun sword style and steeling his resolve to wreak revenge on behalf of his extinct family, Jin-ha sets out on his one-man mission unaware that an intricate interweaving of bloody and emotional events will complicate his quest far more than he could ever imagine.

What initially may, on paper, have the outward appearance of a typical Hong Kong revenge plot (hero suffers a terrible wrong, trains with a wise old master, slices and dices his way to success) rapidly gives way to a densely plotted, at times Shakespearean in scope, martial arts movie. All the complex plot elements of the rather more restrained Emperor And The Assassin can be seen here; loyalty, betrayal, enduring love, political expediency, honour. Matching these are marvellously choreographed martial arts and some truly extraordinary scenes of personal interplay that border on the melodramatic.

Unfortunately Bichunmoo doesn’t quite live up to being the sum of its very well designed and executed parts. The plot, as mentioned above, is thick and, through no fault of his own, debut director Kim Young-jun can’t quite allow all the various elements enough time to breathe. At the behest of Korean multiplex owners who demand cramming in 5 showings every day, which in turn restricts films to a duration of 2 hours or less, four scenes had to be cut (these are covered in the extras section) and were subsequently lost.

Tragically the effect of these excised scenes is to unbalance the film, most of the superb swordplay coming in the first half. More importantly, several strands of the story are affected (glaringly, one strand pays off in the film’s denouement without ever having been established in the first place) which can make the middle confusing to say the least. Bearing in mind that Bichunmoo is not a completely linear narrative anyway, it’s not difficult to see why members of the audience will get lost on the first viewing.

For all his wonderful flourishes for which he should quite rightly be applauded, director Kim doesn’t help himself when depicting shifts in time; at one point 10 years has elapsed when a couple of key characters are reunited but it’s difficult to tell that it’s been more than 10 days. No concession is made to characters ageing, the young Jin-ha and Jin-ha’s son are played by the same actor which doesn’t help, exacerbating the cracks in the fractured narrative.

The use of traditional period music punctured by pumped up rock guitar inserts has also provoked plenty of debate. Horror stricken thoughts of A Knight’s Tale or even worse Plunkett And Macleane may come to mind but used sparingly, as it is here, the mix of styles actually works quite well.

Bichunmoo is a film of grand ambition and, the above caveats aside, for a first time behind the camera it’s impossible to fault Kim Young-jun for his effort. Shot across six provinces in China the scenery is nothing short of stunning, authentic architecture among the glorious vistas being employed with efficacy.

The martial arts too are something special under the guidance of action director Ma Yuk-sheng, protégé of the famed Ching Siu-tung who was designed the dazzling sequences in A Chinese Ghost Story and more recently Zhang Yimou’s Hero. The Hong Kong and Chinese stunt teams go about their business with great gusto and genuine invention in wire work, swordplay and finally hand to hand combat, to illustrate that really no one does it better.

Doubled extensively during the fight sequences, the principal pair make much more of an impression with their faces exposed to the camera. Kim Hee-sun is radiant in a rare role as a pro-active princess and Shin Hyune-june is terribly dashing as the troubled hero, even if he underplays the emotions in a way that might alienate less forgiving members of the audience. More than able support comes from Jeong Jin-young who neatly essays the conflict and contradiction in loving Sullie who can not love him back and his unfortunate intractable opposition to Jin-ha.

Premier Asia have thankfully opted for the double disc approach to a film with plenty of extras so viewers can rest assured that the video bitrate isn’t compromised. Consequently Bichunmoo looks fabulous. Colours are rich and sharp with no blooming or blurring from the finely textured silk costumes and both shadow detail and black levels are spot on. As the black clad warriors storm the Mongol compound at night contrast levels too are proved to be fantastic, just as they need to be.

There isn’t a dust mark, scatch or blemish to be found; despite having been lensed in 2000, it is still immensely impressive to observe just how good this transfer is to put many contemporary Western releases in the shade.

Subtitles, as you should expect from a company affiliated to HKL, perfect. Slightly more phonetically exact than the initial Korean attempt (‘Kyu’ is translated as ‘Gyu’ for instance), these removable subs are presented in a nicely legible white font and represent the Korean dialogue with

Another advantage of having all the extras on the second disc is that both Korean DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks can made available for the main feature.

The half bitrate DTS (768 kb/s)is very good indeed, providing accomplished channel separation in the many crowded fight scenes and plenty of subwoofer rumble when the driving guitar snatches of the score get underway. Dialogue is always crisp from the centre speaker even if, for those who speak Korean, Shin Hyune-june’s granite-jaw facial features at times muffle his lines.

For those without access to a DTS decoder, the equivalent Dolby Digital track is certainly no slouch either. It does miss out on some of the clarity in the tensile shrieks of grating swords and the subwoofer thump of the kung fu kicks but it is impressive all the same with the dialogue perhaps slightly higher in the mix than the DTS version.

An English language Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included. Even with all the limitations of dubbing it’s not a bad job; the voice actors don’t try to inject too much emotion into proceedings and are actually aided by the restrained onscreen delivery of dialogue as demanded by the plot. This is an example of as good as a dub will get although it’s still nowhere near a substitute for the real deal.

Champion of the Audio Commentary Bey Logan is joined by fellow Asian cinema expert Mike Leeder for the sole special feature on the first disc. Logan continues to amaze all and sundry with his knowledge of Hong Kong movies but, seeing as his Korean expertise is in rather short supply, Mike Leeder makes for an appealing companion during the commentary.

In fact, the commentary works much better than the above makes it sound; Logan is able to provide deep background on the Hong Kong or Chinese players behind the scenes where Leeder abets with much more of a focus on a Korean context for Bichunmoo. As the two are old friends it’s a breathlessly engaging two hours in their company. Plenty of suggestions for the uninitiated for other movies, both Hong Kong and Korean, to be viewed in the future and this is another Logan commentary worth its weight in gold.

Top billing on disc two goes to an Interview Gallery. Arranged in three parts these are presented in fullscreen. Stuffed with clips from the movie there are spoilers aplenty so in order to avoid disappointment just make sure you watch the movie first!

The first 28 minute segment is devoted to Kim Young-jun in which the director shows great humility in acknowledging the influence of A Chinese Ghost Story and Zu Warriors and for the assistance of choreographer Ma Yuk-sheng in realising the ambitious Korean storyboards. Reference too is made to exactly the mixture of music is employed as it is in the film as well as the frustration in hacking the film down from the first 3 hour and 40 minute(!) incarnation into a 2 hour summer blockbuster in order to satisfy cinema chain heads.

The second segment lasts for 18 minutes and focuses on leading man Shin Hyune-june. Looking surprisingly smaller here than the Bichunmoo movie magic makes him out to be, Shin describes his middle class upbringing and his association with the director that stretches back to their university days. In talking about the balance between action and drama one is left with the impression that Shin and Kim are very much Seoulmates (sic) and that of Korean association the equivalent of Scorsese and de Niro could be on the cards in the future.

The last piece, of 18 minutes duration, is an exclusive with action choreographer Ma Yuk-sheng who details the nature of his apprenticeship under Ching Siu-tung and the culture clash which proved not to be a problem during the Korean/Hong Kong production. What Ma Yuk-sheng is overly keen to stress is the rather obvious point that Hong Kongers remain the very best in producing the martial arts action seen in Bichunmoo. However, he does go on to illustrate the cultural differences between Hong Kong and Korea which goes some way to explaining the disproportionate box office take in the two markets.

Next up, under the moniker of Music Library, comes the movie’s isolated score. 14 tracks in Dolby Digital Stereo are on offer and although the lack of a ‘Continuous Play’ option is a little annoying it’s always nice to hear those delicate flute loops or grinding guitar riffs without the sounds effects of swords and the like over the top of them.

A Korean speciality reproduced here is the Music Video in which a prototypical syrupy ballad is set to images from the film. The stereo sound quality is quite poor, not just concerning the soft Kpop number, and the non anamorphic 1.78:1 image doesn’t help but it’s worth seeing once, if only for the inordinate amount of time that Kim Hee-sun is on screen.

A CGI Montage can also be found. While there’s no narration or subtitles to explain what’s going on, this is an invaluable little feature that takes the four key CGI sequences and shows how motion control cameras are utilised, demonstrating how each layer is shot then added one atop the other for the finished frame.

Again bearing in mind to watch the movie first, after the above comes an anamorphic Candid Camera feature that is split into seven separate spoiler heavy sections:
Guiding Light (4:52): director Kim is interviewed on-set amidst shooting the movie’s final fight scene;
The Lovers (4:57): the two leads give an impromptu on-set interview with some behind the scenes footage of the pair practising their final scene together;
Leading Lady (8:09): Kim Hee-sun gives a humble evaluation of her performance and there’s plenty of footage of Sullie in the Mongol compound that didn’t make it into finished film;
Warrior In Repose (7:31): behind the scenes footage of Shin Hyune-june signing autographs on location in China and an illustration of just how gruelling some of the sub-aquatic blue screen work really was;
Father’s Day (4:27): an on-set interview with the actor portraying Taruga;
Birthday Party (3:03): camcorder footage of the birthday celebrations afforded to an unnamed member of the crew;
Night Raiders (2:39): behind the scenes footage of the difficulties of shooting the night time Mongol compound assault.

In addition to the above is an Out-take reel, just over 4 minutes long. Lacking subtitles, some of the dialogue goofs will be lost on non-Korean speakers but there are many scenes of Kim Hee-sun corpsing and a few unintentionally hilarious clips of wire stunt work going painfully wrong.

A non-anamorphic Original Theatrical Trailer is available, somewhat surprisingly with subtitles, which emphasises the love story for all of 20 seconds before hitting overdrive with the action sequences for the rest of the 2 minutes of the promotional clip.

In contrast, the anamorphic U.K. Promotional Trailer is a much more relaxed affair. Perhaps inspired by the Galadriel prologue of Fellowship Of The Ring it features an unusual but welcome female voice over that skirts around most of the cheese to present the love and action elements in equal measure.

A Photo Gallery containing 33 stills presents mostly still film grabs but there are a few behind the scenes shots in there which are worthy of a viewing.

The penultimate item on this extras disc are plain text Biographies of leads Shin Hyune-june and Kim Hee-sun giving a limited background to their respective careers before and since Bichunmoo.  Included with these is a Film Notes section that is priceless not for its description of the original Kim Hye-rin manga on which the film is based but for the detailed lowdown of the four missing scenes and certain excised plot points which confuse the narrative.

The final extra is an Also Available section. For Premier Asia information is provided on the subsequent Ichi The Killer, Musa: The Warrior and Bang-Rajan releases. For Hong Kong Legends the similarly themed Swordsman, Zu Warriors and Once Upon A Time In China 3 are highlighted.

Taking the cue from Hong Kong Legends’ tried and tested formula, all of the above can be accessed via a neatly designed set of scored menus which carry lilting loops of flute suites from the film.

Bichunmoo is ambitious, impressive and spectacular. At the same time Bichunmoo is overblown, dense and, at times, darned confusing. The former may be laid at the door of debut director Kim Young-jun and action choreographer Ma Yuk-sheng; the latter is the responsibility of Korean cinema chains and whoever ‘mislaid’ the missing elements.

The film alone, for its few enforced flaws, is definitely deserving of a purchase and should keep anyone enthralled for two action packed hours. Presented on an outstanding double disc set with all due reverence afforded visual/audio quality and extra features (other distributors please take note!), Premier Asia have started as many fans of world cinema would like to see them go on; roll on the rest of their catalogue!