"If you are at all interested in epic movies...old or new, Asian or otherwise...Braveheart, Spartacus, Bichunmoo, you name it...then Musa carries one of the highest recommendations possible."
AKA: Warrior, The Warriors, Musa the Warrior
Director: Kim Sung-su
Producer: Cha Seoung-jae, Xia Shang
Writer: Kim Sung-su
Cast: Ju Jin-mo, Jung Woo-sung, Ahn Sung-kee, Zhang Ziyi, Park Yong-woo, Park Jeong-hak, Yu Hye-jin, Jeung Seok-yong, Lee Du-il, Han Yeong-mok, Yu Rong Guang
Running Time: 158 min.
Plot: In 1375, a group of Korean envoys and warriors finds itself trapped and on the run in war-torn China. Their plan to return home is compromised by a kidnapped princess and internal strife. Based on a true story.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
ALEXANDER'S REVIEW: Ignoring Public Enemy's pleas to not believe the hype, I prowled misspelled listings of all-region Musa DVDs on eBay until I found a dealer who wasn't charging $40+ for a cheaply pressed bootleg solely so I could see firsthand what all the fuss was about. I've fallen trap to the Hype Machine before, standing in line for hours to catch an early screening of Phantom Menace (and God, how it sucked) and begging and pleading my parents for an elusive (at the time, anyway) brown-haired Cabbage Patch Kid when those adorable dolls sent Soccer Moms into murderous frenzies at K-Mart. So it was with trepidation that I dropped a cool $15 (what a bargain!) on an "original" Musa DVD.
So I get the DVD after a few weeks (!), eager to see whether or not Musa was indeed even remotely as good as Numskull said it was. I ripped open the padded envelope with gusto and pulled out the plastic boxes and read, aghast, the following: "Musa: Best Vedio Foever! Speiel Featurs!"
Okay, so it wasn't the real deal and I probably lined the pockets of a two-bit criminal enterprise of poor spellers specializing in basement pressed bootlegs of hit Korean films. Whatever. What mattered most was that the disc worked. Wide screen. Crisp picture. Great sound.
Best $15 I've ever spent.
Of the 750 plus films I've watched in my lifetime, few have brought me more pleasure than this mesmerizing movie. It's easily one of the best and most moving films I've ever seen, ranking amongst personal favorites Schindler's List, Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, Platoon, Three Kings, The Killer and Pulp Fiction. Musa is THAT good.
I knew I was watching one of the best film's I've seen about thirty minutes into Musa. When Ahn Sung-kee's character, the archer Daejung, heroically dashes full speed down a barren hill towards a legion of enemies with only a bow and a notched arrow, I felt chills snake down my spine. (The last time I was so moved by a scene was during the frenetic opening minutes of Spielberg's masterpiece Saving Private Ryan). Many similarly moving and majestically filmed scenes follow (including a rousing finale that left me -- honest to God-- on the verge of tears).
Sure, the whole rag-tag-band-of-highly-skilled-warriors-versus-a-mammoth-army has been done countless times before, but never in such an emotionally charged, beautifully filmed, superbly choreographed and convincingly acted way. Everything WORKS here, from the cast (Zhang Ziyi stands out as Princess Buyoung), to the battle sequences (as HUGE and deftly filmed as anything in the highly touted Gladiator), to the cinematography, to the music, to the engaging plot. Musa is, simply, the best movie ever produced on the Asian continent.
(NOTE: Bootlegs are BAD! Very, very BAD! May copywrite infringers burn in hell 'foever'!)
ALEXANDER'S RATING: 10/10
NUMSKULL'S REVIEW: An "epic" is typically defined as a long narrative describing heroic deeds and taking place over an extended period of time. This being the case, many films which have been described as "epic" AREN'T epic; they're merely long. Due to the time constraints imposed by the medium of popular cinema, the meaning of the word can be tinkered with and applied to films which present an ambitious story in grandiose fashion, regardless of just how many or how few heroic deeds (if any) they entail and of the amount of time in which they take place, within the confines of their own little universes. With that definition, "epic" (be it noun or adjective) will be implemented henceforth and can most definitely be used in reference to the lengthy Korean adventure, Musa.
The reason I bring the connotations of the word "epic" into debate is that Musa's storyline, while encompassing more characters and situations than it would indicate at first, is quite simple. A band of Korean envoys and soldiers from two separate factions...Yongho and Joojin...meets a hostile reception in China and, thanks to the capricious hand of Lady Luck, is thrown into a dire situation requiring them to flee to their homeland of Koryo (what westerners would refer to as Korea). Two warring Chinese forces, the Yuan and the Ming, involve our hapless protagonists in their power struggle even more deeply when Buyoung, the abducted Ming princess, falls into their hands. Strangers in a strange land, the travelers from Koryo must face bloodthirsty foes, the merciless whims of Mother Nature, and a very difficult decision...whether to proceed with their plan to try and escape China or to assist Princess Buyoung in an attempt to find an easier way out of this mess...while struggling with heated disagreements and clashes of personality and philosophy within their own ranks.
Chief among the Korean characters are General Choi Jung (Jun Jin-mo), decision-maker in all matters of conflict and survival; Daejung (Ahn Sung-kee), a highly skilled archer and trusted advisor who served under Choi Jung's father; and Yeesol (Jung Woo-sung), a long-time servant of the vice-ambassador with which the group travels. Princess Buyoung is deftly played by Zhang Ziyi, who exhibits a good mix of the solemn nobility which should rightfully be intrinsic to her character and the pampered bitchiness that made her so despicable (yet so damned attractive at the same time) in her breakout film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Noteworthy among the supporting cast are Park Yong-woo as Park Jumyung, a cowardly interpreter; Lee Du-il as Jisan, a Buddhist monk who joins our unfortunate group simply because it's the right thing to do; and Yu Rong Guang (best known for the title role in 1993's Iron Monkey) as the Mongol General Rambulhua, a principled but very formidable antagonist.
Surpassing the budget record set by another Korean swordplay epic, Bichunmoo ("Dance with Sword"), the production of Musa was clearly a colossal undertaking. It features dialogue in both Korean and Mandarin (with Zhang Ziyi once again being a native speaker surrounded by actors who were required to study the language for their roles in the film), and its mammoth cast and crew covered 10,000 kilometers of territory (mostly in the inhospitable desert regions of China). Five years of planning, five months of shooting, and a budget of eight million bucks (had this been a Hollywood production, it probably would've cost ten times as much and ended up looking about half as good). The combat is shockingly realistic. Fanciness has no place here amid all the screams of agony and severed limbs. The cameras seem to have a special fondness for shots of arrows piercing peoples' necks. Yet all of this is done with class; this film is not merely concerned with seeing how much bloodshed it can get away with. At the same time, the battle sequences can pack an emotional wallop. I can recall few cinematic moments more rousing than the scene in which Jisan, after two hours (our time) of vow-induced pacifism, explodes into action and starts smashing everyone in sight with a huge wooden support beam to defend a group of helpless peasants.
As time grows short, tempers run high, and the final showdown draws near, the popular Hong Kong theme of redemption rears its head in connection with three characters in particular: Choi Jung, Buyoung, and Park Jumyung. At first, it seemed to me that Choi Jung was something of a flawed character; not "flawed" in the tragic/Shakespearean sense, but "flawed" as in, somebody screwed up when they wrote this guy. His impulsiveness and disregard for the welfare of his troops is so pronounced that one seriously wonders how he ever achieved the rank of General in the first place. However, these issues are addressed in due time, and he eventually comes to be seen in a different light. Princess Buyoung fits into preconceived "princess" stereotype slots quite comfortably at first, and just when you start to think she's the most useless character in the history of motion pictures and that the Koryo troops should have dumped her royal ass in the middle of nowhere the very moment they met her, she goes and does something incredibly noble (or at least tries to). As for Jumyung, well, what can I say...once a wuss, always a wuss.
The most outstanding character of all, though, is Yeesol (sometimes called Yesol, sometimes called Yeosol...damn subtitles). I friggin' WORSHIP this guy. He reminds me of Mani (Mark Dacascos) from Brotherhood of the Wolf. Despite living on the lowest rung of the social ladder, he takes shit from no one, I repeat, NO ONE. Look at him cross-eyed and he'll cut your fucking head off. Although this is a very prestigious sort of film, actor Jung Woo-sung brings an undeniably welcome and even more undeniably cool no-nonsense action hero/lone gunman "badass-ness" to the role, and he manages to do it without letting you forget about the humble position of his character in the grand scheme of things. Though a slave at first, his actions reveal that he is perhaps the most noble character of all.
As of this writing, Musa's only DVD incarnation is a Region 3 double disc set that includes an 80-page hardcover book featuring a production diary, cast information, and a "DVD Column"...all in Korean. There are also lots of color photos and a small number of technical drawings. The second disc is loaded with not one, not two, but THREE hours of extra features; alas, the production notes and interviews (TONS of those) lack English subtitles, so the only bonus materials of any appreciable value to most Western viewers are the costume design illustrations (from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon folks, by the way) and a four-minute outtake segment. However, if you're able to play Region 3 DVDs, it's still worth the price of admission. I'm tempted to say that anyone with a passion for epic films, swordplay, and/or a combination of both should invest in an all-region DVD player for the SOLE PURPOSE of watching this film, but...let's not go nuts. If Miramax acquires the rights to it, THEN let's go nuts. This film can and most likely WILL leave a mark on Western audiences, whether it is presented whole and untainted or not. It's just too good NOT to. Its only flaws are occasional herky-jerky moments in the battle scenes (due, if I am not mistaken, not to undercranking but to the insertion of CGI effects), some questionable stunts involving horses (I'm sure the animal rights groups would raise their eyebrows, and rightly so), a final scene that is a bit too rushed and upbeat, and the fact that there are one too many shots of Zhang Ziyi shedding a single tear. That's understandable, though; the film is so damn good, passionate fans of epic cinema might just weep at its sheer magnificence.
Jam-packed with memorable scenes and performances, Musa represents an overall level of quality on all fronts...dramatic and kinetic, aural and visual...that few contemporary films can hope to match. If you are at all interested in epic movies...old or new, Asian or otherwise...Braveheart, Spartacus, Bichunmoo, you name it...then Musa carries one of the highest recommendations possible.
NUMSKULL'S RATING: 9/10