Sunday, March 24, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Musa: The Warrior (2001)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Zhang Ziyi, Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, Park Yong-woo, Park Jeong-hak, Jeong Seok-yong, Lee Du-il, Han Yeong-mok, Er Cha Huo, Yoo Hai-jin, Yu Rongguang, Song Jae-ho

Only those on journeys will see the dim roads that lead the way home.

After having crafted two of the most successful films in the '90s about the hot-blooded youth of Korean men, Kim took a surprise turn in the entering the 00s with something quite a bit different: A sprawling period of epic co-production between South Korea and China. In doing so, he created one of the most iconic sword-centric films of the era with the massively successful Musa: The Warrior (2001). He brought his muse Jung Woo-sung back on board to play Yeo-sol, the hero of the picture but also added Korean talents such as Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, and Yoo Hai-jin in one of his first iconic roles. In addition to the local talent, he casts Chinese screen giants Zhang Ziyi and even Yu Rongguang (of Iron Monkey fame). Needless to say, this film had a lot of attention on it from the moment it came out and it ended up gaining the hearts of many fans the world over. I remember seeing this in video stores when it came out when I was heavily into martial arts and wu xia films. Still, my passion for Korean cinema hadn't begun yet, and in fact, I don't believe I even realized its country of origin at that age, but I digress. The point is that this film was rising among hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , and the two Zhang Yimou films that would follow this: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I know these films are all Chinese productions and follow more traditional wu xia sensibilities. Musa was more grounded and would inspire local productions, such as Sword of the Moon , and set a trend with more realistic war-centered period pieces.

The Warrior, as it is titled here in the States, follows the story of a group of Korean soldiers and diplomats that are on a journey to try and make peace as representatives of Coryo (an ancient kingdom within the Korea of that period ([late 1300s]), to the two feuding dynasties within China (Ming and Yuan). Among their group is a very quiet slave named Yeo-sol. Yeo-sol is gifted his freedom upon protecting a certain someone, but the general of the Coryo army (Ju Jin-mo) aims to not allow that. Things end up going south for this group, and after a significant encounter happens, which I don't wish to spoil the details of, the group finds themselves with a Chinese princess in their possession, who is played by the always wonderful Zhang Ziyi. They aim to protect her but also use her as leverage in their favor. As I said, I don't really want to spoil plot details, but essentially, this plays out like an epic road movie. The characters journey back home at some point, and along the way, many, many things happen. There are many characters and various factions to keep up with, but director Kim manages to keep everything in line, easy to follow, and, most of all, make the two-and-a-half runtime completely engaging from start to finish. There's a lot of action and beautiful filmmaking, but ultimately, the film has a few elements that show its age and sort of remind one of the film techniques that came and went during that time rather quickly for a reason.

Many people who come into these period epics are looking for action set pieces, and Musa delivers the goods in spades. There is a lot of fighting throughout, and the scale ranges from a dozen or so combatants to full-on large-scale war battles. It is all very entertaining and, at times, emotionally draining. This film manages to give you thrills while not forgetting the sheer brutalities and realism of war, even from a bygone era. The weapons here feel very realistic, and the various soldiers on the screen are mutilated in an absolutely horrific fashion. Lots of blood is shed, and while some sequences can be seen as cool and stylish, the film seems to sort of deconstruct the flashiness of action just for the appeal of it. A grim reminder that war is nothing to glorify. You become emotionally invested in these characters as they trek from one area to the next, their common goals: to end the madness and get back to their homes. We learn about various people's home lives and what awaits them upon surviving and returning; it is all the same: family. We all just want to love and be loved. A simple concept that bridges us all together as a species, regardless of personal beliefs and cultural differences. I love that this is explored with such depth here. It gives weight to each progressing showdown as our heroes become more tired and, at times, less hopeful. It's powerful stuff.

The technical stuff ranges here from masterful to feeling dated. The way some of the action sequences are edited can sometimes feel odd and off-putting. Occasionally, you feel lost in the action, but not in an intentionally chaotic sense. Sometimes, the editor may have needed more to work with or could've even had too much. It's hard to explain, but when watching, you will get a sense of what I mean occasionally. I say that then, on the other hand, especially during the climatic battle and ending sequences, I think the cinematography and staging of what is going on is peak-level cinema and reaches Akira Kurosawa's levels of profound beauty. The elements are on display, with fires burning, embers flying through the air, and black smoke billowing throughout the battlefield as our characters fight for their lives. The angles shown and the emotion on their faces are just purely epic and truly encompass that word better than most films of the genre that I can think of. I had chills and felt my jaw dropping repeatedly. It's the type of shots and sequences that many directors only dream of making. Truly top-tier stuff near the end of everything.

I don't think everything in Musa is utilized to its full potential. Still, the film that we ended up getting is an emotionally charged period epic that feels sprawling and thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. I think Zhang Ziyi was sort of just typecast here, even though she does a fine job, but some of the side characters get to really shine, such as veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki as the badass archer Jin-lib, or Yoo Hai-jin as Du-chung, who is perhaps my favorite character in the film. He is a fierce and grizzled man but shows a soft side as he opens up about his home life and just proves that even early on, in only his fifth or so role, Yoo Hai-jin would go on to become a household name in Korean cinema. Kim Sung-soo decided to do something different with this project than anything he had done prior, and I think he does so with great success. No wonder this film has gathered such a strong following over the years. It's the definition of a classic. My highest recommendation to fans of the genre.

Written by Josh Parmer

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