Musa: The Warrior DVD Review
Musa: The Warrior is the latest film from across the Pacific to capture my attention. Joint Security Area and Shiri had already demonstrated to me the maturity of Korean cinema, and I was intrigued to see a Korean attempt at my favorite genre, the historical epic. When I saw it on sale at HKFlix, I took a chance and ordered it. And I was richly rewarded.
The film is set in northern China, circa 1375. The rise of the Han's Ming Dynasty has pushed back the shrinking Yuan Empire of the Mongols. At the same time, relations between the Ming and the Koryu (ancestors of present-day Koreans) have been deteriorating, most recently with the death of a Ming envoy in Korea. In hopes of mending ties with the rising Chinese power, a peace delegation has been sent from Korea to the Ming capital of Nanjing. But because of deteriorated attitude toward the Koryu, the delegation is captured and exiled to the desert.
The Koryu soon find themselves caught in the middle of the Ming/Yuan conflict. They are freed from their Ming captors by cavalry of the Yuan empire, who slaughter all of the Ming. Unfortunately, all of the Koryu diplomatic representatives also perish in the battle or soon thereafter. Without these diplomats, the group cannot accomplish its mission and must return to Korea in failure. The young general (Joo Jin-Mo) charged with protecting the delegation takes command and leads the group in a punishing attempt to cross the desert.
The Koryu soon find an oasis with food and rest, but before long another group of Yuan soldiers arrive, with a prisoner in tow. They have captured a Ming princess (Zhang Zi-yi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), another token in the ongoing Ming/Yuan conflict. Jin-mo decides to rescue the princess from the Yuan, another controversial assertion of his authority that puts the group in harm's way.
Jin-mo also refuses to release the slave (Jung Woo-sung) of a dead diplomat, whose master had granted him freedom before his own death. The slave proves to be perhaps the most dangerous member of the group, with spear-wielding skills that astonish throughout the story. His intense loyalty to his deceased master is only subdued when replaced by an attachment to the rescued princess.
Though the early scenes of the film lay the clear groundwork for a rivalry between Jin-mo and Woo-sung, a third member of the Koryo delegation soon emerges as the true leader and hero of the film. The leader of the lower class members of the group (Ahn Sung-ki) demonstrates a keen sense for battle and a talent with the bow that has no equal outside of Middle-Earth. His quiet wisdom and calm demeanor in battle strike a contrast to both of the more passionate warriors, and it seems at times that the whole film consists of Sung-ki extricating the group from the trouble that Jin-mo and Woo-sung got them in.
The story also features a tremendous enemy in the figure of the Yuan general (Yu Rong-kwong, Iron Monkey) who pursues the group to recapture the princess. He is an absolutely worthy adversary, and his story arc is as interesting as that of the protagonists (though it is harder to gather from the shorter cut of the film; more on that later). The remainder of the film consists largely of his pursuit of the princess and her Koryo rescuers.
There are a lot of things to love about this film. It has a grand breadth, yet also achieves admirable depth in a rather large set of ensemble characters. The plot has its epic aspects, seen best in the pursuit of the Koryo by the Yuan cavalry, and its character-driven aspects, seen best in the internal divisions within the Koryo band. And it accomplishes all this in subtleties that most in Hollywood would not dare trust their audiences to notice. The cinematography and photography are astonishing throughout, as are the choreography and editing of the battle scenes. And the brutality and sadness of warfare are never subsumed by sentimentality.
Yet some are bound to be disappointed because of false expectations. With Zhang Zi-yi and Yu Rong-kwong onboard, many will come seeking the wire-fu martial arts action of recent wuxia films. But the combat in Musa has more in common with Braveheart and Gladiator than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film also purposely lacks the sheen and color of Hero, instead opting for the gritty reality akin to Lawrence of Arabia. That the film takes so much from the best epics of the West while retaining the storytelling of the East is one of its finest accomplishments. If you approach the film with appropriate expectations, it succeeds on nearly every level.
Style: 5 (out ot 5)
Substance: 4 (out ot 5)
Overall: 4.5 (out ot 5)
I own the PAL-formatted, Region 2 edition of Musa from Premier Asia, and it is a DVD presentation truly worthy of the film. Premier Asia is the latest label from the folks who created Hong Kong Legends, a series which I collect almost religiously because of their skill in remastering Asian film prints, which for many years lacked the protective care and storage of Hollywood films.
Of course, Musa is a 2001 production, so it comes as no surprise that the 2.35:1 anamorphic video is pristine. As mentioned, there is a gritty feel to the film, and this comes across as intended. Some studios (Miramax comes to mind) have gained a nasty habit of making the transfer too soft, losing some of the detail necessary to the visual presentation. Not so here.
I used the Korean DTS track for my viewing, and it too was wonderful, with both the dialogue-intense and the battle scenes well served, something that is not always true when a film has such a dynamic range. In addition, the English subtitles were easy to read, and as expected from Premier Asia, free of any grammatical or spelling errors. (The Korean language track is also available in Dolby Digital 5.1, as is a dubbed English track, which I have no use for whatsoever).
And then there are the special features, always a strong suit for Premeir Asia and HKL. In addition to the always worthy audio commentary of Bey Logan (here joined by Mike Leeder), this edition of Musa features an entire second disc of features with numerous featurettes.
The second disc also includes twenty minutes of deleted scenes. Unlike most American films, where the deleted scenes were never part of the film, the deleted scenes here actually were in the original release. The Korean cut of the film runs about twenty minutes longer. I have a copy of that cut on the way to me, so I'll comment more on it later. But my present impression is that the cuts largely benefit the pacing of the film. So for those find themselves drifting away during the slow parts of a longer film, this shorter international cut is for you. If you're like me, and you usually prefer a bit more exposition at the cost of a slower pace, then I say pick up both: the international version for the longer cut, and the Premier Asia version for the commentary and extras.
Video: 4 (out ot 5)
Audio: 4.5 (out ot 5)
Extras: 4.5 (out ot 5)
Overall: 4.5 (out ot 5)