MUSA (aka THE WARRIOR) (2001)
In China, 1375, the country has been torn in two by the warring Ming and Yuan Dynasties. A large group of diplomats are sent from Korea to China to make peace with the new government. But when the diplomats are charged as spies by the Ming, they are sentenced to exile on a remote island. When the Yuan attacks their group during their guarded transfer to the island, they barely survive, and learn in the process that the Yuan have kidnapped a Ming princess (Zhang Ziyi). The diplomats decide to rescue her in hopes of winning favor with the Ming and safe passage home.
When the princess is finally taken into the care of the diplomats, young general Choi instantly falls in love with her, and never lets her out of his protective sight. Meanwhile, the elderly yet still powerful Yesol keeps guard over his fallen master's body, and plans on bringing it back to Korea for proper burial. As they continue their journey, they are repeated attacked by the enemy. Only through superior military skill do they prevail to the fortress where the princess will be safe, however, one final stage of their journey is still ahead of them, and tragedy will accompany their every step.
At the time of release, this was one of Koreas most epic and costly productions, and it certainly shows with every scene. From sets to costumes, and from location shooting in China to the cast and crew, every dollar is on the screen. The tale of a band of soldiers from Korea is lavishly detailed, beautifully filmed, and politically insightful, all while being brutally violent in the same vein as BRAVEHEART. The stoyline is well thought out (though authenticity to 600 year old history could be questioned), and the characters are given time to flesh out in between battles.
Director Kim Seong-Su, who had previously released several character driven dramas in Korea, lets loose a saga full of stylistic sound a fury, with kinetic camerawork that is hard to deny. Kim's attention to detail and research into the time period this film takes place is a double edged sword here though. During the action sequences, the highly realistic weaponplay brings about several wince-inducing deaths, but during the dialog sequences this gets drawn out a bit too long. Kim's attempt to make every single character into a living and breathing person, a la Akira Kurosawa's epics, can be a bit trying at times. There is more than one sequence here that involve a look into class systems and political motivations which would fit nicely into a History Channel documentary on China, but here only slows the pace for those that are not totally dedicated to period pieces offer.
Jeong Woo-Sung, who plays Choi, returns for the third time to be directed by Kim Seong-Su. He pulls off an well-balanced between emotional acting that really pulls at your heart and amazing ability to use a sword that will have you holding your breath as he charges into battle. Zhang Ziyi, fresh off the set of 2000's CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, essentially plays the same bratty and brazen young woman here.
Clocking in at over two and a half hours, MUSA will drag a bit for those expecting nonstop balls-to-the-wall action. There is an international version available though, which cuts the film down to just over two hours, and should be a reasonable alternative to those that do not wish to deal with the full spectrum that MUSA has to offer. Modern Korean cinema has a way of blending several genre styles without effort, and here just about everything is on tap - action, drama, romance and tragedy - and setting aside the nitpicking previously mentioned, this film will find its way to a growing list of swordplay epics that are perfect to fill a Saturday afternoon.