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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003
Need an epic fix fast? Walk this way
A huge hit in its native South Korea when it was released in 2001, "Musa (The Warrior)" arrives on Japan's screens in the wake of several higher-profile Asian swordfests. But don't get the wrong idea -- Director Kim Sang Soo isn't aping the mamby-pamby, ballet-like wire-action of "Hero" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Kim's idea of action is so bone-crunchingly savage it would leave Peter Jackson running for the toilet.
Instead of airy warriors gracefully trading flurries of slashes as they glide by, Kim gives us rabid Mongol horsemen getting ripped out of the saddle by swords thick enough to slice an SUV down the middle. Blood spurts onto the camera lens in violent eruptions, but unlike Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," this is no joke: Kim takes his characters -- and his combat -- deadly seriously, and has fashioned an ultra-macho ode to medieval chivalry.
Set in 1375, "Musa" follows a small band of diplomats, soldiers and slaves from the Korean kingdom of Koryo who get caught in the middle of fighting between the Ming and Yuan dynasties in China. Their epic struggle to travel over 10,000 km to the coast and commandeer a boat to sail home draws liberally from the ancient Greek story of Xenophon, with a final last stand that rivals the fight for the Battle of the Alamo in its sheer, suicidal gallantry.
While these sort of heroic epics (think "Braveheart" or "Gladiator") tend to highlight one exceptional man who changes history, "Musa" focuses on the dynamics and tensions of a group under extreme stress, giving us at least five main characters and about a dozen memorable minor ones.
When the film starts, you think it's going to be the young, handsome general Choi Jung (played by Joo Jin Mo) who's going to be the film's center of attention. When the Korean envoys -- on a mission to negotiate peace with the Ming -- are accused of being spies, they're sent into the desert as prisoners, disarmed and escorted to the border. The caravan is attacked by Yuan raiders, who kill all the Chinese but let the Koreans live -- albeit stranded in the middle of the desert.
It's here that Choi steps up and takes command, ruthlessly driving the survivors through sandstorms and blazing sun to reach sanctuary, attempting to do a 20-day journey in 10 days on six days of rations. We see that Choi is brave and decisive, but there's also something heartless about his leadership. When the aged senior envoy dies from the pace, his servant Yeo Sol (Jung Woo Sung) seeks to take his body along for a proper burial, but Choi refuses, even taking Yeo Sol's horse to serve the living. Being a silent but stubborn type, Yeo Sol resolves to drag the body if he has to.
That he does, and all the survivors reunite at an oasis town, just as the Yuan raiders also return, with a captive in tow: a Ming princess, Bu Yong ("Crouching Tiger's" Zhang Ziyi). She drops a handkerchief with a one-character message written in blood: "Help." It's Choi who retrieves it and plans an ambush to rescue her, but in the end it's Yeo Sol who saves her.
OK, you think, so now we've got a love triangle between the two men, general and slave, to see who can win the princess' affections. But to his credit, Kim keeps pushing the story in different directions. Princess Bu Yong is an aloof regal type who's used to people serving her, but as the flight of the Koreans grows increasingly desperate, she's forced to see the human consequences of her demands. Also intriguing is the Mongol warrior ruthlessly pursuing them, Rambulhua (Yu Rong Guang). Spared after being wounded by Yeo Sol, he respects the Koreans, but is nevertheless bound by a blood oath to retrieve the princess. A bad guy you can't really hate vs. a good guy you can't really like -- now there's a morally instructive picture for our times.
As the film plays out, we finally see that Korean archer Jin Li (Ahn Sung Kee) is the only man who can stand up to the arrogant general Choi, who's the heart of the film. With his stoic calm and gravitas, Jin Li eclipses the macho bluster of the younger heroes. The older warrior is just as brave, but he's also sensible and steady, usually when the group needs it the most.
As for the huge cast of minor players, they all who seem to have been selected for their exaggerated facial expressions. This is one of those films, like "The Seven Samurai," where you do walk away remembering all the characters, even the bit parts who meet tragic ends.
The battle scenes are unbelievable fierce, and -- again, a rarity -- actually make sense. We see how the small group of warriors set up an ambush, or prepare to defend an abandoned castle, and then follow how their plan plays out. It's far more exciting, and realistic, than the usual rush-'em-head-on approach of action flicks. While the course of the action is coherent, the way it's shot and edited is absolutely chaotic. Kim and cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku have been heavily influenced by the impressionistic, swirling, fractured style that Chris Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai tried out in "The Ashes of Time" (which had a similar, spaghetti-Western feel with its desert locales.)
The rest of the cinema-going universe is sitting down to the final chapter of "The Lord of the Rings" this month, but for those of us here in Japan who can't wait till February for their dose of epic medieval sieges and heroic self-sacrifice, "Musa" is well worth a look in the meantime. It's the most expensive Korean movie ever made and looks it, and was so popular a sequel is already in production. The next generation of Tarantinos will be raving about this one 20 years from now . . .