BoL: Sweetly Sings The Mourning Bird

Continuing our survey of imaginary movies, which includes providing Barbarians of Lemuria stats for the main players, we turn our inner eye towards the 1997 Korean cinema classic, Sweetly Sings The Mourning Bird (애도 조류는 여전히 감미 롭게 노래). Though this film doesn’t feature any effects by Ray Harryhausen, the climax is a rather stunning sequence in which the protagonists turn their astounding martial skills against an entire army of Chinese soldiers, their general, and a 9 foot tall terra cotta warrior/golem thing. So there’s that, which is good enough for us.

The central narrative of the film follows the journey of young An Do-Keun, from his humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s son in rural Korea through his rise to the heights of the martial world. His master is a grouchy old swordsman whose skill with the blade is rumored to have accomplished many great feats but who is also responsible for the death of a woman who was once the Chinese Emperor’s most beloved concubine.

We find out, via flashback, that the woman in question was actually some kind of supernatural assassin sent by the Lord of the Underworld to murder the Emperor and pave the way for evil eunuchs to rule China. A brief scene involving a many-tentacled puppet (whose strings you can barely see) illustrates the battle, but there’s not much time spent on this portion of the story.

In any case, the Emperor is a rational man of modern thought who never believed this tale, and he banished Sook (then called Lu I-po) to Korea, where he is no longer able to exert influence in the Imperial Court. Hold that thought – it’s important, but it will take a little while to get back to.

Twenty years later (according to the on-screen text), the drunken, irascible swordsman has taken the name Sook Seong-Kim and done his best to vanish into his new country. One winter day he stumbles drunkenly into a town that is under siege by Chinese soldiers disguised as bandits – just as the town’s blacksmith is coldly murdered because he won’t surrender the blade he is crafting for the Korean emperor. In a flash, Sook’s inherent nobility returns and he makes swift work of the rabble with only a stick, a rake, a hammer, and finally the still steaming sword the blacksmith had been working on. The sword sequence in particular is stunning and amusing as Sook is perpetually tossing the blade from mittened hand to mittened hand to avoid burning himself.

In the aftermath of all of this, the blacksmith’s young son – our previously noted protagonist, of course – begs Sook to teach him how to be a great warrior so that he can protect his country and never allow another boy’s father to die. Sook, disturbed that the people responsible for this tragedy were his own, takes the boy under his wing and begins training him. A musical montage follows, naturally, and in the span of 3-1/2 minutes of Korean pop (sung, it turns out, by the actor who plays An) the boy becomes both a man and a master swordsman in his own right.

The two swordsmen, young and old, travel about Korea for an unspecified length of time, righting wrongs and defending the populace from the depredations of bandit, pirate, and the like. On one of their adventures they wind up taking on a new companion, the Sadie Hawkins-esque Pak Myung-sun, a barbarian woman from the north, who serves the dual role of comedy relief and love interest. Pak chases the affections of An relentlessly, but he doesn’t fall for her. We’re privy, through a sequence in which the old master accidentally sees Pak emerging from a hot spring, to the knowledge that the woman isn’t as outsized as she seems in her dirty quilted armor (though she is still definitely not a small woman – think Kirby’s Big Barda here). Sook keeps this knowledge to himself, though.

At one point we cut back to China, where we learn that the old Emperor has gone senile and the country is now in the grip of a military coup lead by the exceptionally large and evil General Kwan. The General is, of course, under the influence of a small cadre of eunuchs who are clearly in league with the forces of Hell who were thwarted by Sook/Lu in the prologue. Kwan, at the urgings of the eunuchs, is on a path towards invading Korea in the name of the Emperor and plans for the invasion are revealed in small pieces. Reports of the “great Korean heroes” punctuate the briefing, with Kwan starting to piece together that Sook/Lu – his own old master, we learn in a flashback – is involved.

Back in Korea, our heroes have a few more little adventures, with each one revealing a bit more of the Chinese plot to invade Korea. Soon after, the invasion (and the heart of the story) begins at last.

In short order, we reach the climax of the film, wherein the Chinese army, led by Kwan and assisted by the giant clay warrior golem, face off against Sook, Pak, and An. An spends much of his time routing the soldiers, while Sook engages with Kwan and Pak leads a small force of brave Korean warriors against the golem. Things go fairly poorly for the Koreans initially, and Sook is defeated and left for dead by his old pupil. An then engages with the General, wild with anger and grief over the apparent death of his master/second father.

Across the battlefield, Pak’s cadre has been defeated by the golem, leaving only her and her large axe standing between the creature and the Korean Emperor’s palace. She fights valiantly and ultimately bests the creature, but not before suffering a number of grievous wounds and being almost completely stripped of her bulky, padded armor in the process. This does, conveniently, reveal her to be the far more beautiful woman that she actually is. You can see where this is going, I’m sure.

We cut back to the showdown between An and the General, whose battle has escalated into epic territory, with flying leaps and sundered trees and all of the over-the-top stuff you’ve been built up for based on the flashbacks showing what these two swordsmen’s master was capable of in his prime. The CGI and wirework in this sequence is serviceable, but to the modern eye it definitely seems a bit dated.

Needless to say, An winds up winning. Sure, there are a couple of teasing moments where it looks like he will fail, but really, they wouldn’t have made the movie if that were ultimately the case. His father’s last sword does shatter at one point under the powerful and unrelenting blows of the General, but even that is not enough to stop the great hero.

The real heart-rending drama comes in the aftermath, when it’s unclear if Pak will pull through, choking and gasping as she confesses her undying love for An. The young hero cradles her in his arms, tears streaming down his face as another love song (again, sung by the actor who plays An) swells to accompany a montage sequence of Pak being treated by physicians and slowly but surely recovering.

In the end, of course, everything turns out fine, with Pak and An marrying and becoming legendary heroes of Korea. We are shown a glimpse of their future, about a year later, with a prosperous farm, two beautiful twin children, and An hammering out a new sword on his father’s anvil.

Ah, but what of the seemingly defeated Sook? Just as you think there’s a giant hole in the script, An picks up the still cooling sword from the anvil and tosses it, steaming, through the air where is it caught by none other than Sook’s charred-mittened hand. The old master smiles, nods at the happy couple, and mounts a horse to ride off into the sunset. Westward, to China, to finish cleaning house.

Sook Seong-Kim (Lu I-po) / Lifeblood 11 / Hero Points 5
Attributes: Strength 1 Agility 2 Mind 2 Appeal 0
Combat Abilities: Brawl 0 Melee 3 Ranged 0 Defense 3
Careers: Warrior 3 Physician 1 Scholar 1 Vagabond 0
Boons: Swordsman, Carouser
Flaws: Distrust of Sorcery
Languages: Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese
Equipment: Sword (d6+1), Very Light Armor (d3-1)

An Do-Keun / Lifeblood 12 / Hero Points 5
Attributes: Strength 2 Agility 2 Mind 0 Appeal 1
Combat Abilities: Brawl 0 Melee 3 Ranged 1 Defense 2
Careers: Warrior 1 Blacksmith 2 Scholar 1 Merchant 1
Boons: Attractive, Swordsman
Flaws: Feels the Heat
Languages: Korean, Cantonese
Equipment: Boon Sword (d6+2), Very Light Armor (d3-1)

Pak Myung-sun / Lifeblood 15 / Hero Points 5
Attributes: Strength 3 Agility 1 (0) Mind 0 Appeal 1
Combat Abilities: Brawl 1 Melee 2 Ranged 0 Defense 3
Careers: Warrior 1 Barbarian 2 Pirate 1 Thief 1
Boons: Attractive, Hard-To-Kill
Flaws: Country Bumpkin
Languages: Korean
Equipment: Great Axe (d6+5), Medium Armor (d6-1)

General Kwan / Lifeblood 14 / Hero Points 5
Attributes: Strength 5 Agility 1 (0) Mind 2 Appeal -1
Combat Abilities: Brawl 2 Melee 2 Ranged 2 Defense 2
Careers: Soldier 3 Torturer 2 Warrior 1 Scholar 0
Boons: Swordsman, Poison Immunity, Cerulean Strength
Flaws: Arrogant, Ugly & Brutish
Languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean
Equipment: Great Sword (d6+7), Heavy Armor (d6)

Chinese Soldiers (Rabble) / Lifeblood 3 / Hero Points 0
Attributes: Strength 1 Agility 1 (0) Mind -1 Appeal -1
Combat Abilities: Brawl 0 Melee 1 Ranged -1 Defense 0
Careers: Soldier 0
Languages: Mandarin
Equipment: Swords or Spears (d6+1), Medium Armor (d6-1)

Giant Terra Cotta Warrior / Lifeblood 30
Attributes: Strength 4 Agility −1 Mind -2
Combat Abilities: Defense -1 Protection d3
Attack with Sword +1; d6+6
Attack with Fist, +0; d6+4

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10 thoughts on “BoL: Sweetly Sings The Mourning Bird

  1. G-Man

    What’s struck me most about the Korean period cinema I’ve seen are those funny black hats the nobility wears. Otherwise, I’d think I’m watching a samurai film.

    This could-have-been BoL movie series of yours is really engaging. I’m just wondering when you’ll post some big-hair 80’s apocalypse flick (mousse and gel survived the bomb), or a scratchy-filmed early 70’s lucha piece.

    I assume the ‘Swordsman’ boon means you get a bonus die when fighting with said weapon.

    1. the venomous pao Post author

      I’m glad you’re digging the series (if two counts as a series), G-Man. With luck there’ll be a few more. I confess that I was initially planning on sticking with strictly fantasy stuff, but your modernish & post apoc ideas intrigue me. We’ll see how things marinate in the brain pan…

      Yep, the “Swordsman” boon does, in my mind, exactly what you think it does. It’s pretty broad – possibly too broad for actual play – but it gets the job done for this purpose at least.

    1. the venomous pao Post author

      Actually, this film is a complete work of fiction that only exists in my brain, Gianni. I’m trying to make myself write up game stuff by imagining movies that would be good for gaming stats. Why am I doing this instead of just statting out things from real movies? I have no idea 🙂 I think it might be because this is the best way to trick myself into writing in general at the moment – I like the construction of telling the story about a story a la The Princess Bride (and, of course, countless other works).

      1. Gianni

        Excellent! It seemed so consistent with what I’ve seen of Korean historical/fantasy film that I thought it was a real movie 🙂

        1. the venomous pao Post author

          Cool! I was hoping I managed to hit the right notes. Thanks for the perfect confirmation of that, amigo!

          1. the venomous pao Post author

            Sorry, Mike! But the pictures in your mind are hopefully even better than the film would have been anyway 🙂

  2. Gregarious Monk

    Hey Pao,
    I lived in Korea for a few years and I’ve watched my fair share of Korean films (I prefer their gangster movies, though). This one sent me off to IMDB looking for it as well. Nice job capturing the feel of Korean period films.

    1. the venomous pao Post author

      Well hello there, Mr. Monk! I’m glad you like the post and I’m just plain tickled to hear that it “worked” (on the seeming like a real Korean film front) for someone who actually lived in Korea. Thanks for commenting, amigo!

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