Review: ‘Musa’

A swordplay drama with an "Alamo"-like third act, Korean-produced "Musa" has the potential, with some fine-tuning and trimming early on, to cut a notch in overseas markets among both connoisseurs and the curious.

A swordplay drama with an “Alamo”-like third act, Korean-produced “Musa” has the potential, with some fine-tuning and trimming early on, to cut a notch in overseas markets among both connoisseurs and the curious. Though pic lacks the sheer flamboyance of, say, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (despite sharing one of its female leads, the pert Zhang Ziyi), film’s pacing and character development make this more accessible to Western auds than many higher-octane Hong Kong productions. By late September, the high-stakes production had already clocked up more than 1.5 million admissions (around $10 million) nationwide in South Korea, justifying the major investment in time, money and hoopla that preceded its release.

In an industry that seems to break new records every few months, “Musa” reps the biggest gamble yet in South Korea’s filmic renaissance, with a tab of almost $8 million (huge by local standards) and a five-month shooting sked in China. On a broader level, it’s another attempt to hitch a ride to international markets on the back of known Chinese talent: Just as recent drama “Failan” cast H.K. star Cecilia Cheung to draw Asian auds, so “Musa” taps the internationally hotter Zhang.

Last year’s rather disappointing “Bichunmoo” repped South Korea’s first major push into the Chinese-branded genre of fantastical swordplay movies.”Musa,” however, gets the formula right, shooting on the Mainland for authenticity but with a story that naturally mixes a Korean and Chinese cast and doesn’t try to ape H.K. genres.

Yarn is based on a true story, set in the late 14th century, when the (Chinese) Ming dynasty had taken over from the (Mongol) Yuan dynasty, re-establishing Han rule. When relations soured between China and neighboring Korea, four envoys from the latter were imprisoned. In 1377, three of them just about made it home; the fourth, and his party, vanished. From this historical sliver, helmer-writer Kim Sung-su, whose previous three features have all been youth-centered, contempo dramas (“Beat,” “Our Sunny Days”), has fashioned the speculative “Musa.”

Like many Asian costumers, the opening packs in a mass of confusing information. Things start to settle down after a reel or so, but for Western viewers the whole first 45 minutes of the movie will require some cutting to thin out distracting incidents and bring the main story more quickly and sharply into focus.

Core group, which is trying to make it to Shandong province (and thence by boat to Korea), is led by chief envoy Gen. Choi (Ju Jin-mo), a young but strict military type; his aide, Lt. Ga-nam (Park Jung-hak); and a wise old owl from the commoners’ army (vet Ahn Sung-ki). Tension already is building between Choi and Yeo-sol (Jung Woo-sung), a slave bodyguard of the vice-envoy, when the refugees find themselves lumbered with a Ming princess, Furong (Zhang, impressive), who says they’ll all be rewarded if they can get her home safely.

The imperious Furong develops the hots for the strong and silent Yeo-sol, while Choi has his eye set on Furong. When they reach the Yellow River and are joined by a raggedy band of Chinese owing allegiance to Furong, the story’s main dynamic clicks in: why a bunch of Koreans, who are just trying to get home, should imperil their own lives to save a Chinese princess.

It’s an intriguing idea that’s worked out in an un-wordy way in Kim’s script, as the group makes it to a ruined seaside fort and decides to make a last stand against the pursuing Mongol army — whose leader (Chinese thesp Yu Rongguang), in a nice touch, just wants to get back to the Mongolian grasslands. This last 70 minutes is almost a mini-movie in itself.

Kim says he was influenced by both Kurosawa and Peckinpah, and there are certainly traces of “Seven Samurai” and “The Wild Bunch” in the long third act’s heroic resignation. Ahn, particularly, is very moving as the wise, battle-scarred vet, but both Ju and Zhang notably transform their characters as the pic proceeds. The odd man out, strangely, is Jung’s slave warrior, Yeo-sol, who seems to come from a different, more fantastical movie.

Early action sequences, often shot in shuttered style, are not especially impressive, with color degrading; later ones, however, have a melancholic viscerality. Costuming is impressively detailed and realistic; score by Japan’s Shiro Sagisu is weak, with no consistent flavor, though the final showdown, amid fire and snowflakes, still packs a considerable punch.

Title literally means “The Warrior(s)” — pic’s original English handle — but producers have dropped that moniker to avoid confusion with a FilmFour movie set in India that’s also doing the rounds.

Musa

South Korea

Production

A CJ Entertainment release of a CJ Entertainment/KTB Network presentation of a Sidus Corp. production, in association with China Film and Beijing Film Studio, with participation of Muhan Technology and intz.com. (International sales: CJ, Seoul.) Produced by Cho Min-hwan, Zhang Xia. Executive producers, Suk Dong-jun, Ha Sung-keun, Cha Sung-jai, Choi Jae-won, Kim Jung-yeong. Directed, written by Kim Sung-su.

Crew

Camera (color, Super-35 widescreen), Kim Hyung-ku; editor, Kim Hyun; music, Shiro Sagisu; art director, Xiao Huoting; set decorator, Li Mingxan; costume designer, Huang Baorong; hair and makeup, Lee Kyung-ja; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Byung-ha, Lee Ji-su; martial arts director, Jung Du-hong; special effects, Jung Do-ahn, Kim Tae-eui. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 11, 2001. Running time: 157 MIN.

With

Sgt. Jin-lip - Ahn Sung-ki
Yeo-sol - Jung Woo-sung
Gen. Choi Jung - Ju Jin-mo
Princess Furong - Zhang Ziyi
Yuan General - Yu Rongguang
Lt. Ga-nam - Park Jung-hak
Ju-myung, the Interpreter - Park Yong-woo
Ji-san, the Monk - Lee Du-il
Do-chung - Yu Hae-jin
Ha Il - Jung Suk-yong
Dan-saeng - Han Yeong-mok
(Korean and Mandarin dialogue.)
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