The glum revenge epic Last Knights is a timeworn tale that, when you squint, looks like the future. Established Hollywood stars Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman are there onscreen clutching swords and intoning dramatic pledges of fealty and death. But the money for the film came from South Korea -- and in the movie business, money is always the A-plot.
In Asia, South Korean culture reigns supreme. Its pop albums and makeup styles are even cropping up -- illegally -- on the streets of Pyongyang. Last Knights is Seoul's first big step toward making movies for the rest of the world. It's shot in English and filmed in the Czech Republic, and every frame is a round-the-globe mash-up. The director, Kazuaki Kiriya, is Japanese. And the actors come from everywhere: from Norway to Nigeria, plus Israel, Iran, and Italy.
Last Knights is set in the feudal past of a land that never existed. The young emperor (Peyman Moaadi, imperious but with a streetwise Paul Muni snarl) rules over several villages that seem to be only a horse-ride away. Local leader Bartok (Freeman) is known for his deadly warriors and moral superiority. He could also be known for his white, walrus-tusk mustache, but no one onscreen does a double-take at its majesty. His fighters are called the Seventh Rank, and each has sworn an oath pledging courage, devotion, and good conduct.
Bartok's straight-spined rebellion leads to a bloody showdown. This is a story that's been told, and told again, since the dawn of fiction. Still, the South Koreans have invented a new genre: grim camp.