Korean cinema has treated me to some real gems as of late (e.g., Failan, Bichunmoo), and there are plenty more that I haven’t checked out but plan on doing so soon (My Wife Is a Gangster, JSA). But then along comes Musa, which not just exceeds my expectations, but blasts through the roof and sets a whole new standard. I had heard very little of this film, aside from a few bits and pieces here and there. I’d heard about Zhang Zi-Yi’s involvement (always a plus, it seems), it’s status as one of Korea’s biggest movie productions of all time… the usual scuttlebutt. But nothing prepared me for such a rich blend of action, drama, and tragedy.
Musa is set in 14th century China, during 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 (à 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 à 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.