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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Musa the Warrior  


Musa the Warrior

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Director: Kim Sung-su
Writing credits: Kim Sung-su
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Ahn Sung-kee, Ju Jin-mo, Zhang Ziyi, Park Yong-woo
Genre: War drama
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Year released: 2001
Runtime: 158 min
Rating: * * (out of four stars)

Musa the Warrior is a collaboration between the Korean and Chinese film industries, with Korean director Kim Sung-su at the helm, and is probably the most expensive Korean movie ever made at a cost of US$8 million (yes, non-Hollywood films are much cheaper, it seems). Set in the 14th Century, Musa attempts to be an extremely visceral war epic, unabashedly shedding blood at every opportunity. After a slew of war movies of late, this is finally the film that takes the Saving Private Ryan concept too far (although, technically, it predates the other war movies because it was actually filmed and released last year). Musa runs over 2 hours 30 minutes, and despite engaging visuals, is so repetitive and clichéd that it feels even longer than it actually is.

The year is 1375, and Korea has sent out a team of peace envoys to China, in order to restore diplomatic relations with the newly established Ming Dynasty, whose relationship with Korea has soured since the Ming envoy to Korea was killed. The envoy consists of peace officials, military generals, and even a translator in order to facilitate the mission. Unfortunately, the peace envoy fails, and is instead captured and exiled to the outer territories of China. The group is led by General Choi Jung (Ju Jin-mo), a hard-hearted man who decides to try and get the envoy to return to Korea, but doesn’t balk at sacrificing a life or two along the way. Another member in the group is Yeo-sol (Jung Woo-sung), whom Choi Jung still treats like a slave, despite Yeo-sol’s owner releasing him from slavery before death.

The group is surprised by a sudden attack, which leaves the Ming officials dead and the Koreans to fend for themselves in the middle of the desert. Along the way, they find a regiment of the recently toppled Yuan Dynasty, headed by a ruthless but honorable Yuan general (Yu Rongguang). The regiment has held captive a Ming princess by the name of Fu Rong (Zhang Ziyi), and she convinces Choi Jung to help in her escape, promising him great rewards by the Ming emperor, and also the possibility of the restoration of Korea-China ties. However, the Yuan regiment is determined to regain Fu Rong, and the Korean envoy falls under heavy siege from the regiment. Within the envoy, tensions are also escalating between Choi Jung and Yeo-sol, and the condition rapidly worsens when both men seem to fall for Fu Rong. Drastically outnumbered, the Korean envoy fights an extremely lopsided battle, and there seems to be little hope that they would make it out of China alive.

Musa opens promisingly - the stunning desert landscapes, and the first battle sequence, while exceedingly graphic, does manage to hold the audience’s attention. Arrows through the neck, swords through the stomach, soldiers being dismembered, and copious amounts of blood are the flavor of the day in Musa, but what the director doesn’t realize is that even the most graphic of war movies needs a good script in order to work. And true enough, not enough happens in Musa, and even the eye-wateringly graphic battle scenes start to feel tiresome in the second hour. Musa also suffers from poor characterization. Both the male leads play one-dimensional roles, with nary any depth in the characters despite the extended amount of screen time the two share. Almost every character in the movie is a cliché, from the petulant princess to the strong and silent protagonist to the old and knowledgeable war veteran to the coward who finds courage at the critical moment. It’s all very been-there, done-that.
The actors themselves, while competent, are not serviced well by the poor characterization. Both Ju Jin-mo and Jung Woo-sung are too bland to leave much of an impression, and Zhang Zhiyi is nothing more than a glorified vase. The only redeeming performance comes from Ahn Sung-kee, who plays the veteran archer Sgt. Jin-lib, and is the only person whose fate I was really interested in the film. Unfortunately, near the end of the movie, I was more interested in getting out of the cinema to escape the tedium, over anything else.

Final Word: Mired in clichés and drenched in violence, Musa could have been better if more judicious editing turned in a shorter movie.