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MUSA: The Warrior
Films from Asia have been getting more and more attention over the last few years. The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon seems to have opened the gates and now movies from the far east are getting theatrical releases in the US and many more are turning up on DVD. (Many are also being remade by Hollywood studios that have run out of original ideas, but that's a topic for another time.) From horror to action films, Hong Kong and Japan and creating some very entertaining films. One area where the US is still the leader is in the big-budget-summer-blockbuster-flick but that might not be the case for long. One film that has all the grandeur and excitement of the best summer action movies comes from Korea. Musa: The Warrior is one of the most expensive movies ever made in Korea, and is more entertaining and exciting than recent Hollywood spectacles. If you were disappointed in Troy and Alexander, take a look at this film. It puts the others to shame (and at a third of the cost too.)
Note:The R2 UK edition of the film reviewed here is slightly over two hours long and flows very nicely at that length. Unfortunately it has been edited down from the original running time of 158 minutes. My overall advice takes this into account.
In 1375 a delegation of ambassadors and troops head to the capital of China from Korea. There mission was to make peace with the new Ming Dynasty which had recently come to power after defeating the Yuan Dynasty. Charged as spies, the delegation is not received by the new emperor, and instead is exiled into the desert beyond the Great Wall. Here they have to deal with Mongols, bandits, thirst, and hunger.
Resting in a village they encounter in the desert, the Korean general Choi Jung (Jo Jin-moo) isn't sure that they'll be able to make it back to their homeland, and even if they do they will be disgraced. The diplomatic mission was a failure and with the head diplomat and his assistant dead, the military failed in its job to protect the ambassadors.
The situation changes when a squadron of Yuan warriors enters the village. This group lead by General Rambulhua (Yu Rong-kwong from Iron Monkey) have managed to capture the Emperor's daughter, Princess Buyong (Zhang Zi-yi Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2). They are hoping to use the princess to their advantage and hopefully get back in power.
General Jung comes up with a plan to salvage the situation: If his small group can capture the princess and return her to the Emperor, the diplomatic channels will be opened and they can return home as heroes. They plan a daring ambush against the superior forces, and with the surprising help of the slave Yeosol (Jung Woo-sung) they save the princess. They still have to get her back to the capital however, and General Rambulhua isn't about to let his dreams of regaining power slip away so easily. What follows is a game of cat and mouse with an entire army chasing a handful of men and a lovely princess.
This is a fantastic movie. It's just the type of film that every Hollywood studio tries to put out every summer, and more often than not doesn't. Just about everything works. The film grabs your attention from the first scenes and keeps the tension high throughout the two hour + running time.
There are many aspects of this film that are very strong, but the first thing that you notice when watching Musa is the amazing cinematography. The widescreen image captures the shifting sands of the desert beautifully. Set in an arid wasteland, the terrain is both deadly and wonderful to watch.
The performances are just as beautiful. Zhang Zi-yi does a great job as the regal princess who watches scores of men die because of her. At first she the deaths don't seem to effect her, it's a soldier's duty to die for the person he's sworn to protect after all, but as the death toll rises there's a subtle change in her attitude. The person who stole the film however was Jung Woo-sung. Hardly talking, he had to project his emotions with just his body language and did a magnificent job. He can relate more with just a look than many actors can with whole speeches. Though these were the standout actors, everyone did a fantastic job giving strong and nuanced performances.
The costumes added a lot to the story too. The actors were dressed in realistic looking rags. Their uniforms looked like they had been lived in for months and the people were all dirty. They had grime caked to their skin and hair that looked like it hadn't been washed for weeks. This high degree or realism really brought the story to life, making it look like you were watching actual events rather than staged drama.
Director Kim Sung-su and action director Jung Doo-hong did an outstanding job bringing this story to life. The battle scenes were some of the best I've seen in a long time. The frequent clashes between armed men are chaotic but not confusing. There's a lot going on in both the foreground and the background, and the sounds of men dying and fighting for their lives gives a realistic atmosphere to the film.
This movie comes the original Korean soundtrack in both DD 5.1 and DTS, as well as an English soundtrack. I viewed the film with the DTS track and spot checked the other two. To put it simply, the movie sounded great. The haunting music was full and clear while the sounds during the battle scenes surrounded the viewer putting them in the middle of the action. The clash of swords and the sounds of the wounded made the battles seem real and added an extra dimension to the film.
The English dub was markedly inferior to the original language track. While the sound effects and music were still strong, the voice acting just didn't fit the characters well. There are optional English subtitles that were well written with correct spelling and grammar.
The widescreen (2..35:1) image is anamorphically enhanced and looks very good. The film takes place in the desert and is filled with dark earth tones and all these dark colors were reproduced well. The level of detail was excellent, allowing viewers to clearly see the dirt mixed with sweat on the actor's faces as they trudged through the sand. Even in night scenes fine details were able to be discerned. An all around excellent looking disc.
While I was very pleased with the look of this film, it has been reported that the image has been tampered with and isn't the way the creators intended. Without having another version to compare this to, I can't comment on the veracity of this or how much this may effect the presentation.
This two-disc special edition is absolutely packed with bonus material. US DVD producers could learn something from this set. The first DVD, in addition to the film itself, has a commentary track by two Asian film experts Bey Logan and Mike Leeder. This track, which is in English, was informative in parts but filled with too many digressions. The pair manage to talk through the whole film without slowing down a bit, and discuss Korean history, the background of the actors, some of the cultural differences, and Asian cinema in general, which was nice. Unfortunately they drifted off topic frequently and several times devolved into middle school-like banter; making jokes out of the Asian names (Is Sammo Hung's brother Well Hung?) and talking about which actresses were the hottest. There's a fair amount of time devoted to the way Ang Lee directed Crouching Tiger too, which wasn't relevant at all. If you can ignore these digressions, it's an informative track though flawed.
Disc two has the rest of the extras. The disc starts off with three promotional featurettes. Inside The Warrior is an hour long look at the making of the film that features interviews with the cast and crew. The half hour long Legend in the Making interviews supporting actor Yu Rong-Kwong who played the Yuan general in the film. He talks about his life in acting, he started with the Peking Opera when he was six, and his role in the film. A very interesting interview. The final featurette is Songs of the Desert, a short look at the music of the film.
The set also included five minutes worth of outtakes, a reel of candid shots of the cast and crew during filming, and a ten minute behind-the-scenes short that shows how some of the special effects were created. Designing The Warrior looks at the costumes and how they were created.
As if that wasn't enough, there are also 24 deleted scenes that run almost half an hour in all. (These were originally in the movie, and had been cut for this edition.)
There are also two trailers, a photo gallery of stills from the movie, and text biographies of the lead actors. A very impressive set of bonus material. I can't think of anything that they've left out.
A long film and harsh in parts, Musa: The Warrior is an impressive period piece. With subtle acting, gorgeous cinematography, and intense, realistic battle scenes, this movie passes by quickly and leaves you wanting more when it's done. This DVD is very good with excellent audio and visuals and many interesting bonus items it's a disc that will show off your system and impress your neighbors. I only wish that this 'special edition' had included the uncut version of the film. (And though the cut material is in the extras, it's not the same. It was released in its original form in Australia and Korea.) As it is, I really enjoyed the film but think if you are going to import a DVD, why not get an uncut edition? The movie is highly recommended, but this edited edition, though it plays well at this length, would make a good rental.
Special thanks to Mike Lee for help on this review.