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 clichés, 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.
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