"Musa" ("The Warrior")


English reviews

I stumbled into this one by accident thinking it was "Hero", the 2002 oscar nominee also starring Zhang Ziyi. The region 2 (Korean & French audio 5.1) looked good so I rented it... For you consideration, ladies and gentlemen at the Academy Awards. Perhaps not for best director or picture it is true, but nowhere during the last year have I seen a film with such striking yet low-key effects and such a layered action film. For all its desire to entertain, Musa is a sweeping epic indeed. The plot seems inspired by "Seven Samurai" in many places, but with a thread original enough to offer surprises, not least of which are: 1) The characters (some flawed some god-like, but all very human, and a great villain, if indeed he can be called that), 2) Photography... and editing and production design. This is Gladiator-style effects transposed to medieval China with added gritt. The themes also evolve interestingly throughout. The way all characters struggle with their conceptions of honour and how honour in itself turns out to be a cruel and ironic trap to those who cling to it: the only fault our heroes commit to start with is to remain loyal to their mission, and then to their moral views, which brings them more pain than gain. This also gains in texture with repeated viewings, and though it may not quite be Kurosawa, it is a triumph in its own right and procures that nqualifiable delight at watching a film and knowing exactly where all the money went, because it is all up there on screen, and for once, equally shared, performances included. Something you have got to see. For your consideration, ladies and gentlemen: "Musa".


None of the films released in 2001 has matched the hype and expectation of Musa , a period epic set in 14th-century China . The film's plot is based on real history: shortly after the Ming Dynasty seized power in China , a Ming envoy to Korea was murdered, leading to soured relations between the two countries. In efforts to mend ties, Korea sent numerous envoys to China , but most were simply thrown in jail by the Ming. Musa is the story of a group of envoys sent to China who are arrested and then sent into exile. Off in the wilderness they manage to rescue a Ming princess, and they hope that if they can return her to the Ming safely, their honor and good relations between the two countries will be restored.   The film features both a well-known director in Kim Sung-soo ( Beat ) and a star cast: heartthrob Jung Woo-sung as a spear-wielding slave, Joo Jin-mo as the young general, Ahn Sung-ki as a lower-class fighter, and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the Ming princess. Zhang was reportedly cast before Crouching Tiger premiered at Cannes in 2000, a lucky break for the makers of the film. Although her role in Musa features none of the martial-arts stunts for which she has since become famous, her presence on the cast has raised the international profile of this film considerably.   Musa is darker in mood than most blockbusters, with a brutality that leaves little room for romanticism. The director has said that he tried to present his story in the most realistic way possible. This can be seen in the film's impressive fight scenes, which leave the viewer feeling like an unlucky warrior caught amidst the battle. Apart from the disorienting rush of noise and images, the violence is also startling: severed limbs and arrows shot through victim's necks drive home the cruelty of battle.   The story itself is also somewhat unusual for big-budget films. The movie's characters are not your typical heroes: most have an ugly streak which flares up under the extreme situations they face. As the story progresses, power relations among the group are constantly in flux, as the young general and princess gradually start to lose influence among their followers.   The film has some flaws, due in part to its vast ambition. Weak storytelling at the beginning makes it difficult to follow the story or to feel much sympathy for the characters initially. The acting is mostly strong but uneven in parts. Fans of Zhang Ziyi, accustomed to seeing her pound her opponents into submission, may also feel disappointed with the passive character of the princess, although her performance fits in well with the themes of the film.   Undisputed, however, is the strength of Musa 's visuals. Shot in 2.35:1 Cinemascope, the film cuts between stunning landscapes and extreme closeups in a restless, uneven rhythm. Adding to the cinematic thrill is the film's epic score by Japanese composer Shiro Sagisu. Those looking for a bit of widescreen, gory spectacle this fall are advised not to miss this film.


Premise: In the late 14th century a diplomatic envoy escorted by soldiers from the Koryu Empire are thrown into exile. While attempting to journey home, they save a Ming princess (Zhang Ziyi) from Mongols and fight many battles to see her safely returned to the Ming Emperor.

Review: Epic, bloody, and thrilling are three adjectives that best describe this romantic, historical feature from Korea . With exquisite cinematography, rich characters, and fierce action, Musa is a feast for the eyes.

To appreciate the scope of the film, a little background information is necessary. The year is 1375 and a time of historical significance for Asia as three kingdoms vie for dominance. The Yuan Empire, made up of the Mongol people are losing ground after the successes made by Genghis Khan nearly 300 years prior. Meanwhile the Ming Dynasty, made up of the Han people have come to power and a new ruler now reigns over the Koryu, who are the ancestors of present day Koreans.

An envoy of Koryu diplomats and escorting soldiers fail in their mission to meet with the Ming Emperor and are sent into exile. An attack on their Ming captors by a Mongol raiding party leaves the Koryu minus their diplomats and hundreds of miles from home. As they begin their journey back, they seize an opportunity to rescue a Ming Princess (Zhang Ziyi) from the clutches of a Mongol general (Yu Rong Guang) in hopes that they will be able to resume their efforts to meet with the Emperor. But, their troubles have only begun as the general vows to reclaim the princess or lose his life. After picking up a group of refugees, the Koryu make for a Ming fortress that turns out to be abandoned. There, the remaining handful of Koryu make their last stand against the Mongol attackers.

Despite all of this historical backdrop and gorgeous production standards to rival any David Lean epic, this film should not be mistaken for anything more than a rousing action film that gleefully depicts disembodied limbs and arrow shafts penetrating just about every part of the body. Director Kim Sung-Su had already established his finely polished, Hong Kong inspired action in contemporary films Beat (1997) and City of the Rising Sun (1998). In Musa , he's taken a large scale martial arts film that usually trades depth for excitement and given it a dose of dramatic realism that should make any Ridley Scott or Mel Gibson jealous. Why? It is because the film lacks nothing as a historical epic and yet has better action sequences than most Hollywood productions of a similar scale and scope without resorting to the use of CGI characters.

In Musa , the chaotic nature of battle is filmed with a combination of jerky camera movements, slow motion, and lots of gadgets such as trick arrows and pedals that vault actors into the air. (I only know about the gadgets after watching the excellent behind-the-scenes footage on the 2-disc DVD). CGI is in place for a few minor effects such as long building shots and arrows impacting with bodies, but its hardly noticeable. On the surface the gritty way in which the action is filmed could lead you to believe that what you're seeing is possible. But, this veneer cleverly masks highly romanticized action that genre fans relish. Case in point is Jung Woo-Sung's character who appears to be a warrior of unmatched skill capable of tossing a massive spear into the skull of a Mongol while missing Zhang Ziyi who is being used as a shield.

While the combat definitely dominates the film, Musa is made so much better by the characters and performances of the actors who play them. In addition to the physical conflict between Koryu and Mongol, the film depicts a number of other interpersonal struggles between allies that enriches the characters and endears them to the viewer. The Koryu themselves are divided by a rigid class system as evidenced by a clear distinction between a dominate and more educated caste led by an inexperienced general (Joo Jin-Mo) and the lesser led by a seasoned fighter (Ahn Sung-Ki). At the bottom of the rung is a slave turned free (Jung Woo-Sung) who happens to be the group's best fighter. He develops a subtle rivalry with Jin-Mo for the very subtle attention of Zhang Ziyi. On a side note, its always refreshing to see suppressed sexual tension, an aspect of Asian cinema that generally reflects their society at that time in history. Then you have the snobby princess at odds with the soldiers and her own people, even while she learns first hand what sacrifices they will have to make on behalf of her. Another mildly comical rivalry between a Buddhist monk and the group's translator, a student of Confucius leads to one of the film's more poignant relationships. The film does go overboard a bit by over-dramatizing some of the relationships. The worst is the unstated love affair between Ziyi and Woo-Sung. Their desperate efforts to sacrifice or help one another for this love constantly leads the group to disaster and was a source of constant frustration for this reviewer.

The linchpin in the cast is the star, Ahn Sung-Ki, a longtime actor playing the wiser veteran among the Koryu, who is constantly at odds with Jin-Mo over how to proceed. Not only does he look extremely convincing as a hardened warrior with killer bowman skills, but his subdued charisma is undeniable. While the flashier Woo-Sung is running about at his own whim with his mighty spear and mighty flowing hair, Sung-Ki becomes the film's real hero as he keeps the group together and pulls them out of one jam after another with his tactical experience and deadly accurate archery. I couldn't help but compare his action scenes to the archery of Legolas in The Two Towers . They could have made a film just about Sung_ki's character and I would have loved it. In fact, the film probably spreads itself too thin with the focus on so many characters, including one of Yu Rong Guang's best dramatic roles to date. Thankfully, they are all well developed and appropriately cast. I think for this reason Musa is one of those films that is even more fun to watch the second time to soak up all of the sub-text.

All said, Musa is a great period film with incredible action, splendid visuals, and excellent performances. It would have been nice if the musical score had used orchestration in place of synthesizers and pop music or if the last twenty minutes contained less melodrama mixed in with the action. But these are minor gripes for a film that delivers such an entertaining experience.


"Musa" is set in 14th century China, a time of great unrest between the two ruling empires, the Ming and the Yuan. A Korean envoy, led by General Choi Jung, has come to pay respects to the Ming emperor. Instead of receiving them, the emperor accuses them of working to undermine his rule, and sends them into exile deep in the desert. After a Yuan troop kills their guards (in the first of many brutal battles), the envoy begins the long, arduous journey home. But none of them realize just how difficult it will be.   After wandering through the desert, they eventually come across a small village where they can get get food and supplies. Soon after, a Yuan patrol arrives with some interesting cargo, a Ming princess named Buyong (Ziyi). After receiving a plea for help from her, Choi Jung decides to rescue her and return her to the Ming emperor as a gesture of good will. But complicating matters is the arrival of Yeesol, a former slave who demonstrates his great ability with a spear by easily dispatching a few traders.   Rambulhua, the Yuan general, is so impressed with Yeesol that he takes him prisoner, hoping to make him one of their soldiers. The Korean general lets him go, despite his troops' protests (one of the first signs of the group's growing rift). The Koreans work on setting a trap to rescue the princess, leading to another brilliant fight where Yeesol ends up saving Buyong's life. She immediately requests him to be her personal guard (the first of many demands), much to Choi Jung's annoyance.   From there, the journey just keeps getting more and more difficult. Rambulhua swears to recapture the princess, and throws the Yuan armies after her rescuers. But that's the least of envoy's concerns. Intense rivalries threaten to split the Koreans apart at any time. Choi Jung's harsh rules and disregard for the troops gains him little favor. And Buyong's constant demands don't make her any fans either, even pushing away Yeesol.

Adding to the envoy's difficulties is a group of Chinese refugees, survivors of the Yuan attempts to recapture the princess. Buyong refuses to leave her people behind, and this ragtag bunch of Koreans and Chinese finally make it to a Chinese fortress. Here, the princess promises, they'll find shelter and a boat to take the Koreans home. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly, given how the journey's been so far), the fortress is abandoned. That's when the Yuan forces arrive.

It's the final showdown between the Koreans and Mongols, but it's also the final showdown between the those in the fortress. It's here where you really see the film work on many levels. Naturally, "Musa" is a powerful and exciting adventure film, capable of exciting the biggest action junkie with intense, bloody battles (a la "Braveheart"). But the film is equally powerful on the human level. Given the movie's 3 hour running length, you'd expect there to be tons of character development, and there is. Each character, even those who seem unimportant at first, opens up in surprising ways throughout the film.

Jin-mo Ju is perfect as Choi Jung, the beleaguered Korean general. He's harsh and strict, but only because he believes that's the only way they'll survive, and the only way he'll prove his worth as a general. Challenging his authority is Jin-Lib, a common soldier whose skill and bravery make him the troops' favorite. Sung-kee Ahn is superb here, his weathered face perfectly mirroring the soldier's weariness, and his archery skills are second to none.

Zhang Ziyi is as radiant as always. Here, as in "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", she's more than just a pretty face. Her Buyong is proud and petulant, but also toubled by her people's rejection, and her pride makes her capable of the ultimate sacrifice. It's always a joy to see Yu Rongguang on the screen, and he delivers his finest performance here. Rambulhua may be the film's antagonist, but he's no mere villain. Rather, he's a proud warrior impressed with his foes' bravery, but also determined to end this needless struggle and bring peace to his people.

Towering over them all is Woo-sung Jung's Yeesol. A man of few words, he lets his actions, intense gaze, and deadly skill with the spear speak for themselves. At times, the film hints at a slight romantic triangle between him, Buyong, and Choi Jung. But the film wisely keeps things subtle at best, communicating more through meaningful glances than anything else. This downplayed approach keeps the plot from being weighed down with needless melodrama. It also remains true to the characters and their stations in life. Even if Yeesol does love Buyong, he is a slave and she is a princess, and never the two shall meet.

In the end, "Musa" really has no bit characters, no weak performances. In the film's finale, as they're trapped in that fortress, this all comes to a head. You want this bickering bunch to survive. Not because they're the good guys (some of them aren't so good) but because something in them resonates with you. Even though their final battle is a hopeless one, they heroically stand up to the superior Yuan forces again and again. Even the coarsest, most cowardly characters (such as the Korean interpreter, who ran away rather than protect his girlfriend) have a rough streak of nobility, and each is given their time to shine in the face of certain death.

Making this nobility all that more poignant is the constant danger they face each step of the way. Nowhere do you see this better than in the film's many intense battles. Rather than turn "Musa" into some high-flying, wire-laden extravaganza a la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the filmmakers keep it as straight and realistic as possible. The film gets surprisingly bloody, with limbs getting hacked off, arrows puncturing necks, and blood spurting and flowing in copious amounts. The film's brutal realism (enhanced by the months of training the cast underwent) never glorifies the fighting, though it is certainly thrilling and sometimes even beautiful to watch (especially Yeesol's whirling spear). Most of all, however, it drives home our heroes' desperate situation, the incredible odds against which they must rise again and again, regardless of the cost.

It's rare to see a movie that has it all. Incredible direction and cinematography, amazing scenery (the Chinese countryside should honestly be listed as a castmember), and thrilling battles would normally be enough. But when you wed that to a great storyline, strong acting, and rich characters... well, what more can you ask? Movies as rich, satisfying, and electrifying as this are rare indeed.


Story: It is the year of 1375, a large group of diplomats sent from Korea are traveling to China in order to make peace with the new government in the times of the warring Ming and Yuan Dynasties. Because of misunderstandings and complications, they are charged as spies and exiled. On what seemed like a road to perdition, through and endless sea of sand, they are soon attacked by the Yuan. Smaller in numbers now and almost surviving their travels, they come upon a Ming Princess in the possession of the Yuan and attempt to flee her in order to be blessed and favored by the Ming for their heroic deeds, thus in turn, restoring the relationship between the Ming and Korea.  

Review: This Korean epic directed by Sung-su Kim could easily be described as the "Braveheart" of Korea . But by making comparisons like that would belittle the film for its original worth and integrity. In all actuality, MUSA is a beautiful and vicious tale of people of different cultures banding together in order to find their way home in the midst of tragedy. It is a paramount film in Korean film history and should be embraced for its cinematography and complex relationships in a historical context.   One of the most amazing aspects of MUSA is its ability to focus on the matter at hand while developing the characters that drive the heart of the film. There are many different players who fall in and out of the particular roles in the group and it is interesting to see how they interact with each other depending on the positions they are in. For example, the young general leading the group, Choi Jung played by Jin-mo Ju, has a very uncompromising master-to-slave attitude towards the slave spear user, Yeo-sol played by Woo-sung Jung. It isn't until later on in the film, after the numerous fights they have that Choi Jung begins to respect Yeo-sol for his spear fighting abilities and his subtle influence of bravery he has on the rest of the people. Choi Jung is especially fascinating in this perspective for the internal conflict that is being played out in his expressions, as a leader that has to constantly make decisions of sacrifice for the good of the whole group. While many hate on his leadership, it isn't until much later when his guidance is taken away that people start to realize the importance of a man who has to make choices in the matters of life and death.   Another well developed character is Jin-li played marvelously by Sung-kee Ahn of "Nowhere to Hide" fame. As the sympathetic archer of the group, his peacemaking role gave a tenderness to the film in places of treachery and madness. When all is almost seemed lost, his serenity helped put back the humanity and spirit into the film. His forlorn cheeks along with his stoic eyes created a character that represents the goodness in people, always trying to make good and a create balance and understanding where there wasn't. Even in his battle sequences where he would kill with his arrows, he was calm and focused in the pull, almost as if he was letting the enemy rest in death rather than ending their lives in cruelty. The world was at war, and only when you strive for peace can you see the real picture. But there is a revelation waiting for him near the end of the film that finally shakes the ground underneath his feet, changing him forever.   The connecting nucleus of the film, though, is Yeo-sol. While he starts out as the quiet slave with no past, he ends up becoming one of the great heroes of the film. His spearmanship is vicious and unrelenting, his courage shining through. His relationship with Zhang Ziyi's character, Princess Bu-yong becomes the binding force that prevents the film from going all too easy. Both Bu-yong and Yeo-sol becomes a unit that goes against the wishes of the others. There comes some times when it would have been all for the survival of the group if Bu-yong was turned over to the Mongols. With these types of dynamics, we see Bu-yong slowly turning from a stuck up and posh princess to a person stripped down struggling to endure.   I could go on and on about the subtle involvedness of the characters and how every single glance, look and sneer changes the vigorous relationships of the group in such volatile situations, but it is also important to take notice of the beautiful cinematography. It is very similar in films such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Gladiator" where they use rough realism in order to deliver the emotional impact of the film. The fight scenes were as brutal as the warriors themselves. And in all this truthful realism lies a sense of delicate magnificence streaming through. The cinematography is at once both coarse and fragile, tinting with an elegance that marinates each scene in graphic beauty.   MUSA is a great film that combines the same appealing attributes of war and historical films. Almost set in a Role Playing Game template, where they find weapons and meet complex enemies all the while traveling through endless dunes; most will enjoy MUSA for its subtle storyline and unforgettable characters. With an all star Korean cast and the inclusion of Zhang Ziyi, MUSA is a must see and must own!


In the year 1375, after the Yuan Dynasty ( Mongolia ) Dynasty had fallen in what is now modern China , a number of peace envoys were sent by Koryu ( Korea ) to improve relations with the newly established Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately, the diplomatic mission failed, and all four delegations were captured and imprisoned. Two years later, three out of the four envoys made it back to Koryu, while the fourth was never heard from again. With this bit of historical fact, veteran South Korean director Kim Sung-su has fashioned the historical epic "Musa" (also known as "Wu shi" in China), a Korean-Chinese co-production that conjectures what might have happened to the missing envoy. With a budget of $8 million US, "Musa" is probably the most expensive Korean movie in history. Unfortunately, as is the case with some Hollywood blockbusters, bigger and more expensive do not always necessarily mean better, as "Musa" ends up being a technically proficient yet long-winded costume drama that could have used a tighter script.


The film's first hour is the most dense, as characters and conflicts are thrown at the audience in rapid-fire succession. The film opens with the peace delegation, having been captured and disarmed by the Mings, being marched through the desert. However, a surprise attack by the remnants of the Yuan army defeats their captors, and they are left to the mercy of the heat and sand. With the group's diplomats dying left and right, the young General Choi (Ju Jin-mo) takes command of the survivors, a mish-mash group of civilians, Choi's loyal contingent of professional soldiers, and the poorly equipped troops of the people's army, led by the wise Sgt. Jin-lib (Ahn Sung-kee of "Art Museum by the Zoo"). Together, they continue through the desert with the objective of reaching Shandong province, where they can catch a boat home back to Koryu.

During a brief stop in a village, where they find a Ming princess, Furong (Zhang Ziyi of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Legend of Zu"), being held hostage by a Yuan general (Yu Ronguang of "Iron Monkey" and "Shanghai Noon"). In return for helping her escape and bringing her back to Ming territory, Furong promises to reward the Koreans handsomely, an offer which Choi accepts with the hope that it will also restore Koryu-Ming relations. Unfortunately, the princess' liberation does not go unnoticed, and the Yuan army gives pursuit.

At this point, tensions are already building between the rag-tag coalition, especially between Jin-lib's men and Choi, with the former feeling as if they are being sacrificed needlessly while Choi's own men are held back. In addition, former servant Yeo-sol (Jung Woo-sung), who has been made a free man by his dying master, is angered by his continued treatment as a slave by Choi. However, with the princess in tow, the conflicts escalate further and threaten to tear them apart. Choi's followers see the honor and political upside of returning Furong to her kingdom, while Jin-lib's men would rather surrender the princess than have their already sparse numbers whittled down trying to protect her. In addition, a love triangle develops between Yeo-sol, Choi, and Furong-- Furong has an eye for Yeo-sol, while Choi finds himself attracted to Furong.

Running at three hours, "Musa" is a very long film to sit through. True, the production values are top-notch, such as how the film's vast desert landscapes are captured beautifully by Kim Hyung-ku's ("Interview") brilliant lensing. Unfortunately, the light story does not live up to the impressive collection of images that Kim has captured on film, and "Musa" quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome. For example, the film's numerous battle scenes, often involving hundreds of extras and edits, are certainly impressive to watch, reminiscent of the opening scene of "Gladiator", or the grand battle scenes in Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing ke ci qin wang)". However, as technically proficient as Kim is in recreating battles from the 14th Century, how many times does the audience need to see people being shot in the neck by arrows, decapitated, dismembered, or cut down from behind? Even the film's somewhat engaging final act, which kicks into "Assault on Precinct 13" mode as the Koreans barricade themselves inside an abandoned fortress, is needlessly drawn out as Kim fails to reign in such indulgences.

Another disappointing aspect of "Musa" is how it shamelessly trades in cliches, dropping in every stock character and well-tread convention it could get its hands on. The ineffectual yet headstrong leader. The ever-loyal sidekick who never questions orders... until the leader totally screws up. The strong and silent loner who can kick ass and look cool at the same time. The pampered princess who gradually learns to shoulder some responsibility. The coward who runs away at the first sign of danger, only to find courage when it really counts. The grizzled veteran who has the skills and the smarts to survive. The swapping of stories around the campfire about wives and babies waiting at home. The young novice who pays the ultimate price for his bravery. Even Yeo-sol's initial encounter with Furong seems to have been plucked from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

Despite the superficial characterizations, the performances in "Musa" are decent. The most high-profile member of the cast, Chinese 'It' girl Zhang Ziyi, starts off as a little one-dimensional in her portrayal of Furong, though as her character matures, the dramatic range of her performance improves greatly. As Yeo-sol, Jung is given very little to do other than look cool during the fight scenes and speak tersely. Ju, as the similarly one-dimensional Choi, shows off a little more range, while Ahn injects his portrayal of Jin-lip with a level of dignity befitting such a wise and battle-scarred veteran.

Other than film festivals (such as last year's Toronto International Film Festival), the only way to catch "Musa" is through the Region 3 ( Asia only) DVD, or to get a copy of the illegal region-less DVDs floating around. However, with its lightweight script, repetitive battle sequences, and unnecessarily long running time, it is difficult to give "Musa" a strong recommendation and justify the effort. However, if you like historical epics with lots of big battle scenes, then "Musa" is certainly worth a look, and maybe even the effort to track it down.


From Koreanfilm.org: A period epic set in 14th-century China about a group of Koryo (Korean) envoys who are arrested and sent into exile by the Ming. On their way back to Korea , they manage to rescue a Ming princess from the rival Mongol forces.

Epic Korean swordplay film written and directed by Kim Sung-su.
Starring Jung Woo-sung, Joo Jin-mo, Ahn Sung-ki and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. Cinematography by Kim Hyung-gu. Produced by Sidus. 
Running time: 157mins

Five years of planning and production, a seven million dollar budget, and three hundred staff shooting over five months travelling ten thousand kilometres across the Chinese continent. It is unfortunate that these figures speak to me (and probably you) more than the names involved with the production of MUSA: The Warrior . This film is the result of an amazing creative process, with the time and effort invested clearly displayed on screen.

This was made on a seven million dollar budget? Oh my. As a technical achievement alone, MUSA stands without peer amongst every period action piece ever made. As disgustingly exaggerated as that may sound, it's true. Huoting Xiao and his art team have created in MUSA a thing of great beauty, perfectly complimented by Hyung-Koo Kim's cinematography. MUSA is a true joy to watch - there is a harsh perfection in every shot, with every drop of blood, every bead of sweat and every tear so wonderfully defined that the viewing experience is at once strangely alienating and hypnotising. It is difficult not to approach these images without removing them from the context of film (and thinking WOW!), but they are so grounded in emotion that they cannot be separated from the pain they create on screen. This is entirely due to Kim Sung-Su's masterful direction and Hyun Kim's frankly brilliant cinematography. It is unfortunate that the former is overshadowed by the latter so heavily during the action sequences (ie. most of the film), but where Kim's work really hold its own is in the character work.

There are two versions of MUSA floating around - a local (Korean) release, and an international (festival) print. Having seen both, I'm pleased to say that the Korean cut, although perhaps a little more effective in its characterisation, isn't as inestimably superior as some people (apparently) make out. Admittedly there is more opportunity given to the actors to fully realise their own characters and their relationships with one another, including some truly heart-wrenching stuff from Doo-Il Lee as monk Jee San and Yong-Woo Park as interpreter Joo Myung, the film doesn't really suffer from the exclusion of this material. The two leads, Woo-Sung Jung and Jin-Mo Joo, give truly stellar performances (at leats, that's the impression I get from the emotion behind the subtitles!), backed up by the thematic heroism that runs through the whole film. Unfortunately it's clear from the beginning that everything will end in tears, but personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

So what's wrong with it? Well, at 154 minutes it's not a short film, and MUSA sags at times because you find yourself waiting for the inevitable. The audience's own association with the characters is unfortunately undermined in places because you know how it's going to finish, but by the time MUSA reaches its bloody conclusion this is made pretty much redundant (and meanwhile you can always just watch Zhang Ziyi.)

There's so much else I could praise MUSA for. The score is sheer genius - no mouth and all trousers, it calls (almost) no attention to itself yet delivers again and again, perfectly complimenting the astounding visuals. The editing, too, deserves far more attention than I've given it, and the sound design is truly a work of art. Ah well.

If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a distinctly modern love song to wuxia and chivalry, then MUSA is the, er consummation of this relationship between old word values and new world 'entertainment'- loud, messy and intense, but ultimately rewarding. Magnificent stuff.

Rating: If Zhang Ziyi had ten nostrils, I'd appropriate most of them in order to rate this film. Strangely enough, she doesn't, so instead MUSA scores 9 old-school hand grenades out of 10.


"Musa" tells the story of an official government convoy from Korea making its way to Nanjing , China ; the convoy is under the leadership of young General Choi (Jin-mo Ju), a nobleman with a lot to live up to. Along for the ride is Yeo-sol (Woo-sung Jung), a slave for one of the government officials on the trip and a fearsome warrior with a spear. When the convoy is unexpectedly ambushed and turned away by the Chinese government, it finds itself wandering aimlessly in the desert.

Fate intervenes, and what's left of the ragged convoy ends up at a desert rest stop where they encounter a Mongol General name Rambulhua (Rongguang Yu), who happens to have in his possession a Ming Princess name Bu-yong (Zhang Ziyi) who the Mongols intend to kill. The Mongols are at war with the Ming Dynasty, the present rulers of China , and Bu-yong's death will be retaliation for one of their own Princess's murder. It is here that both Choi and Yeo-sol falls for the lovely Chinese Princess, and soon the convoy ambushs Rambulhua's forces and runs off with the Princess. Of course Rambulhua doesn't take this sitting down and the chase is on.

If you thought my description of the movie was convoluted just from reading the above passages, let me assure you that all of the above takes place in the film's first 30 minutes. The movie is not as convoluted as it appears, and is actually quite simple to follow. The plot points are as follows: Koreans in China . Koreans get lost in desert. Koreans find Chinese princess. Mongols chase Koreans. Koreans run. And run. And run some more. That, in a nutshell, is the entire plot of "Musa". There is simply not much else to say about the film.

The movie is wall-to-wall bloody combat, with severed body parts, arrows piercing necks, and enough giant medieval weaponry cutting off or chopping into body parts to make even a butcher wince in embarrassment. "Musa" is a violent film and is practically drenched in blood. The violence is very realistic, ala Mel Gibson's "Braveheart". And like Gibson's movie, the camera doesn't flinch away from showing heads being decapitated and every conceivable method of killing a man with everything from an ax to a log to a giant spear is on display. If you can imagine a way to kill a man, "Musa" has got you covered.

Unlike "Braveheart", which somehow managed to balance bloody violence with a sense of romanticism and adventure, "Musa" feels overwrought and just too long. The film clocks in at 154 minutes, and nearly half of that time is devoted to a castle siege at the end that just goes on and on and on...  Much of "Musa", like the long chase through the forest, the desert, and the prairies, could have been trimmed for pacing. Instead, we get one long chase that never seems to end and is only interrupted by bloody violence between the chasing Mongols and the chased Koreans.

This doesn't mean "Musa" is completely without merit. I enjoyed the interplay between the characters, especially the noblemen soldiers and their slave army. The two groups are complete opposites, and this is apparent in everything from their dress to their weapons to their demeanor. The actors play off each other well, and much of the movie's powerful moments occur when the two factions are at each other's throats. Slowly but surely, we see the barriers of class start to disappear, as the lesser slave soldiers begin to assert themselves, and the nobles begin to die off.

You may have noticed that I said very little about the movie's leads. What's there to say? We are given a sappy love triangle between Princess Bu-yong, Yeo-sol, and Choi. Every now and then, Bu-yong would choose one of the two men, indicates that she favors one over the other, only to change her mind a second later like a spoiled child with too many choices and not enough sense. Indeed, Zhang Ziyi's Bu-yong was annoying and seemed to exist for the simple purpose of giving the Mongols a reason to chase the Koreans. Oh, and of course she also gives Yeo-sol and Choi a reason to stare down each other every other half hour. With a movie that runs well over 2 hours, there is a lot of staring down to be had. The words trite, childish, and implausible come to mind concerning the movie's love triangle.

Writer/director Sung-su Kim ("Please Teach me English") is a long time veteran of the Korean film industry, with over 30 films to his credit. This is something of a shock, since many of the Korean films I've seen lately have been by newcomers with less than two credits (sometimes none) to their name. Kim had a good premise -- Korean warriors in China -- but became too infatuated with a hopeless romance that guarantees his movie will have one of those melodramatic/tragedy ending that all Asian filmmakers love so much. The movie's real highlight is the cinematography by Hyung-ku Kim ("Spring In My Hometown"), who films the action with enough style and flair for five movies.

"Musa" the film should have taken a lesson from its hero and mercilessly slice off an hour or so from its running length. The film is simply too long with a Third Act that refuses to end, and a love triangle that will have anyone with an IQ over 50 laughing at the absurdity of it. But at least there was enough mind-numbing action to keep one entertained.


The Skinny:

Reminiscent of both Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan , this costly Korean production delivers the goods in its epic tale of nine ill-fated Koryo warriors. And, Musa: The Warrior possesses one of the single best beheadings ever put on celluloid.

by Sanjuro:

Musa: The Warrior paints a vivid portrait of war's terrible beauty. One has only so long to admire the sweeping, panoramic landscapes of the film before they become bathed in the blood of its hapless characters. The setting is China , 1375. After ousting the Mongols, the Ming now face a rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Korean nation. When a diplomatic envoy from Korea arrives in China , the Ming troops arrest the innocent visitors as spies, exiling them to a remote desert. As fate would have it, the Koryo warriors escape their captors, but soon learn that freedom is not without its problems. Having failed in their mission, the Koreans find themselves at a crossroads. To return home to Korea as failures would be a shame none of them could bear, yet to stay in China would be a move that would effectively sign their own death warrants.
     However, fortune smiles upon the disaffected heroes in the form of a captured Ming princess, the stunningly attractive Buyong (Zhang Ziyi). The Koryo troops realize that freeing the lovely maiden from the Mongols would not only reconcile them in the eyes of the Ming, but it could be their only ticket home. So the small band of soldiers embark on a daring raid to save the haughty princess and return her safely to Nanjing . However, the Koryo warriors are being trailed by the Mongols, with their powerful leader (Yu Rong-Guang) at the helm. Arrows fly, swords clash, and heads roll as the Mongol forces do battle with the Koreans. The Koryo warriors final, fateful stand against the Mongols is the thrilling highlight of a sometimes beautiful, oftentimes brutal epic war film.
      Musa is an enrapturing movie from start to last. Fans of high-wire fantasy martial arts will be disappointed, since this Korean epic limits itself strictly to the more realistic, gravity-bound variety of fighting (the battles owe more to American war films than wuxia). Musa can also be praised for its attention to character development, as each warrior in the film goes from anonymous "arrow-fodder" to a much more defined character, each with a developing storyline. Zhang Ziyi is gorgeous as the 14th century princess in a performance that transcends the mere "flower vase" role most actresses get stuck with. In many ways, the film - between the guts and the gore - is a rumination on class warfare. The continuing debate, verbal and nonverbal, between Princess Buyong and the spear-wielding ex-slave Yeosol (Jung Woo-Sung), explores the issue of the common man's role within the grossly unfair class system. Musa: The Warrior is a spectacle with a message, an action movie with a heart. In short, it's a great film.


The relationship between China and Korea goes back a thousand years. China was often considered the mother country of Korea . Obscure yet compelling stories about this relationship abound in filmmaking. This spectacular, majestic war epic is based on a real story of what may have happened to the Koryo delegation which vanished on the way home from China . In the 14th century, a chaotic period of transition between the falling Yuan and rising Ming Dynasties, an envoy sent to Koryo is murdered. The Koryo Dynasty (an ancient kingdom of Korea ) sends a delegation of many diplomats, soldiers and slaves to soothe the relationship with the Ming rulers. But the delegation is accused of spying and exiled to a remote desert. On the way, Yuan troops attack them and kill all the Ming soldiers. Only the envoys survive, thanks to the Koryo warriors in the group. The head of the delegation, General Choi Jung, decides that they must return to Koryo, though they may be punished by their own people for failing to accomplish a peace mission. Meanwhile, General Choi struggles with his strong affection for princess PuYong, kidnapped by the Yuan cavalry. PuYong asks him to rescue her, which means further risking the lives of his men.

Talented and strong-hearted director Kim Sung-Soo and one of Korea 's most ambitious producers, Cha Seung-Jae, have teamed up and challenged themselves to create a legendary, historical war epic. This splendid, unique battle saga, which took over five months to shoot in China , is not a hero-centred drama. The characters are portrayed in a realistic manner, the battle scenes are brutal and chilling, devoid of slo-mo over-dramatization or miraculous rescues. The beautiful cinematography, realistic action and authentic costumes are heightened on a Cinemascope screen that has been enlarged form the existing 1.85:1 ratio to 2.35:1. Musa also boasts a superb cast from China and Korea in Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as princess PuYong, Jung Woo-Sung (Beat), a teenage idol who recently tried his hand at filmmaking and directed a short film, and Ahn Sung-Ki, Korea 's Robert DeNiro. As well, renowned producer Zhang Xia (Life on a String), art director Huoting Xiao (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and composer Shiro Sagisu (Evangelion: Death and Rebirth) all joined the team. The director says: " I was inspired by Sam Pekinpah and Akira Kurosawa in making this film. I wanted to envision my distant ancestors, who must have had to overcome all kinds of adversity on the Chinese continent, in the sandy winds of the barren plains."


As AICN Asia's fearless Korean correspondent 18nom reported last week, one of the upcoming Zhang Ziyi flicks is Korea 's "Musa", a martial arts/warrior period epic based loosely on the experiences of Korean warriors with Ghengis Khan. Ziyi plays a Chinese princess -- check out the links below courtesy of the "Zhang Ziyi Forever" website for some pix. Uno Films/SIDUS is planning a July 20, 2001 premier, but yours truly hit the set in China during production to check out what's what.

Musa started shooting in early July of 2000 at several locations in mainland China and wrapped a couple days before Christmas. Zhang Ziyi put in six weeks of hard training before production began at top Korean action choreographer/director Jung Doo-Hong's ("Shiri", "Beat", "The Foul King") Seoul Action School in Poramae Park , Seoul . I was actually in Seoul that spring and I missed her by a couple weeks (darn it!), but I was lucky enough to see the first stages of the sword fight choreography and to have a quick lunch with the stunt team, Jung Woo-Sung ("Beat", "Phantom"), and Lee Jung-Jae ("There Is No Sun", "Asako in Ruby Shoes"). At the time, Lee Jung-Jae had been tapped to play opposite Woo-Sung and Ahn Sung-Ki ("Nowhere To Hide") but later had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

I hit the "Musa" set in China late last year. The location was a positively frigid place in rural northern China called Xinchun (don't quote me on the spelling), 8 hours north of Beijing . Director Kim Seung-Soo ("Beat", "Runaway") had commissioned a local builder to erect a stone recreation of an ancient Chinese castle at the edge of a cliff by a frozen sea. The surrounding countryside was very hilly with lots of low, brown vegetation -- very like Mongolian horse country. The whole effect was breathtaking -- stark and unforgiving and amazingly beautiful. It was also ASTOUNDINGLY cold! Those good ole Midwestern winters now seem positively balmy to me by comparison.

When I arrived, "Musa" was in the last couple weeks of production and they were shooting the apocalyptic scenes -- the castle burning down, showdown fight scenes between the heroes, etc. These scenes were VERY intense...I can't wait to see the finished product! No spoilers yet, but let's just say a bunch of folks don't make it. I recognized crew from other Korean films, and there seemed to be quite a few crew members from "Crouching Tiger " working with them (wearing their Crouching Tiger jackets proudly).

Yours truly was the only American on the set. I'm used to being an oddity in Asia , and I had fun getting to know the Chinese warrior actors, especially the guy who played Ghengis Khan. He was a giant of a man -- at LEAST 6'5" and 300 pounds if he weighed an ounce, and sweet as pie. He shared his smokes with me by way of welcome -- a local Chinese brand so strong I felt like I was smoking an entire burning building. Fun.

Director Kim introduced me to Ziyi, who is a lovely girl and was a little shy about speaking English. She's sweet and very playful, but she was 100% professional when the cameras rolled and I didn't hear her complain about the cold once. I saw quite a few of the playbacks -- she was positively ethereal on camera. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to see her fight; they had filmed those segments already and we shooting her dramatic pieces for the ending as she was due to leave for LA in a couple days.

In the meantime, word had spread to the local folks that Ziyi was shooting there. Xinchun is super rural and most of the folks are farmers of one sort or another -- every day a bunch of the local folks would gather, dressed in their Sunday best, at a respectful distance from the castle. Ziyi would ask that a few be allowed in when she had some down time to take pix with her and shake her hand. Pretty gracious, I thought, considering that it was so cold all I wanted to do when the cameras weren't rolling was huddle by one of the campfires.

The fight scenes that I did see between the male leads were great -- Korean-style martial arts action is an interesting hybrid between martial arts grace and a very rough, brutal street-esque thing. I love straight kung-fu-based action too, but Korean-style action appeals to the martial artist in me. I also got a chance to see some excellent castle-on-fire scenes rigged by Jung Do-Ahn ("Libera Me") who's won Korea 's version of an Oscar for his special effects work.

"Musa" is a very promising flick and could give Korea's film industry its most significant international exposure yet, especially considering how hot Ziyi is right now. Folks should also keep their eyes peeled for director Kim Seung-Soo and Jung Doo-Hong on the international front. Kim is fearless, way creative, and smart as hell. Jung's already been acknowledged as the creator of Korean film's modern action/fighting style, and he's got a serious record of commercial success in Korea . Word has it he's working on at least 4 major films in the coming months...more on that coming soon.

I had a blast on the set of Musa, and I also learned some very interesting things during all the fun. For all you martial arts film fans, here are a few things to remember if you ever find yourself on an epic action set:

NineLife's Things To Remember

1. BEWARE OF THE BLOOD CANISTERS. You know, those pressurized metal cans that look kind of like small beer kegs with a long nozzle attached. Make-up folks use them to apply the blood part of blood-and-gore. One of the nozzles sprung a leak while I was within spraying range, and voila! Instant fake hemorrhage all over my parka and boots. The good news: it looks extremely permanent, but thank god the stuff wipes right off with a little water and a paper towel.

2. YOU'RE GONNA GET DIRTY. It looks amazing, all the horses thundering up in a cloud of dust with the heroes on their back, brandishing magical swords. But all that dust is REAL, dude. Stick around only for a couple of takes and you will be transformed from reasonably hygienic to grimy-faced, dirt-streaked, and bath-deprived. Spend an entire day on-set and you will wonder if you'll ever be clean again.

3. STONE DOESN'T BURN. So the massive stone castle's going up in flames, right? Uh huh. Tires are what's going up in flames, along with other interesting flammables A tip: wear one of those white cotton surgical masks to avoid breathing in all the soot (works good for dust too).

4. THE DEFINITION OF "SOAP" AND "SHOWER" IS VERY LOOSE IN RURAL CHINA . I got really, really dirty on the "Musa" set (see #3), so of course I was dying for a shower at the end of each day. Call me crazy, but I think of a shower as a continual hot spray of water, and soap as a foaming, cleansing accessory to the shower thing. Nope. What I actually did was take several intermittent drizzles accompanied by a small, waxy bar of non-foaming cosmetic substance. What fun!


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