Dir: Kim Sung-Su. South Korea 2001 154 Mins
This South Korean blockbuster had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival at the same time as the September 11 attacks sent journalists and buyers racing from screening rooms to watch real-life horror unfold on TV sets. Those who missed the film for perfectly understandable reasons are advised to catch it again, because Musa: The Warrior makes for an impressive and well crafted epic in the vein of Kurosawa and more recently Ridley Scott's Gladiator. However, it may be hindered internationally by a 154 minute running time.
Although grittier, more graphically violent and lacking the poetic-romantic streak of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it could follow the trail blazed by that film on the international circuit: it took the top spot in Korea, when CJ Entertainment opened it on a record number of screens (80 in Seoul, 202 nationwide), despite September traditionally being the weakest month of the year. Musa is currently the fifth biggest local opening of 2001, taking $6.55m after nine days.
Korean producer Cho Min-Hwan has joined forces with China's Zhang Xia (Life On A String, Farewell My Concubine) for this mammoth project, which spent five years in planning and pre-production and was shot for $8m, making it the biggest-budget Korean title ever. However, the cost of the five-month location shoot in China is on the screen.
An unnecessary muddled piece of intro text informs the audience that the film is set in China in 1375, when the Ming dynasty had just overthrown the Yuan. The Koryo dynasty, one of Korea's ancient kingdoms, tries to achieve better relations with the new rulers of China by sending a delegation to the Ming court. However, the party of diplomats and soldiers are not allowed to deliver their message; instead they are accused of spying and sent into exile to a remote desert.
It's at this point that the film leaves the historical facts, and postulates what happened to the disgraced group of Koreans, who were left with a stark choice: die in the barren wilderness or attempt to trek all the way back to their homeland. As they suffer their ordeals (desert, ambush by Yuan soldiers) the surviving Koreans play as a cross-section of society as Sung Su tips a nod to Kurosawa, with a central trio comprising the young inexperienced General Choi Jung of the Royal Guard (Joo Jin-Mo), a largely silent bodyguard-slave Yeosol (Jung Woo-Sung) and the world weary low-ranking veteran Sergeant Jinlip (Ahn Sung-Gi). Along the way they also save the Ming princess Furong (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger fame) from a group of Yuan cavalry.
The added international attention the film may get from the coup of casting of Zhang is well deserved, and the plot offers up a natural way to mix Chinese and Korean actors. Ahn is moving and display great authority as Jinlip, while Joo and Zhang pace their characters' rude awakening to the harsh realities of their situation with belief. By contrast Jung hardly utters a word or displays an emotion as the handsome killing machine. The Kurosawa influences (as well as those from Sam Peckinpah) play out in the heroic resignation of the film's final impressive battle between the Koreans and the Yuan forces.
Audiences are likely to find the realistic battle sequences in sharp contrast to the elegant operatics of Crouching Tiger, owing more to the opening shots of Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Mostly shot in shuttered style, the scenes make the most of the opportunity to be visceral, with plenty of heads and other body parts flying across the screen. In stark contrast, the beautiful locations range from red desert to damp forests and cold riversides; all are transformed into rich images by cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo; however the score by Japan's Shiro Sagisu's fails to equal the other technical credits.
Prod co: SIDUS / CHINA Film
Int'l sales: CJ Entertainment
Prods: Tcha Seung-jai
Scr: Kim Sung-su
Cinematography: Kim Hyung-koo
Prod des: Xtao Huoting
Ed: Kim Hyun
Music: Shiro Sagisu
Main cast: Jung Woo-sung, Zhang Ziyi, Ahn Sung-gi, Joo Jin-moo