Musa (2001) Movie Review

“Musa” tells the story of an official government convoy from Korea making its way to Nanjing, China; the convoy is under the leadership of young General Choi (Jin-mo Ju), a nobleman with a lot to live up to. Along for the ride is Yeo-sol (Woo-sung Jung), a slave for one of the government officials on the trip and a fearsome warrior with a spear. When the convoy is unexpectedly ambushed and turned away by the Chinese government, it finds itself wandering aimlessly in the desert.

Fate intervenes, and what’s left of the ragged convoy ends up at a desert rest stop where they encounter a Mongol General name Rambulhua (Rongguang Yu), who happens to have in his possession a Ming Princess name Bu-yong (Zhang Ziyi) who the Mongols intend to kill. The Mongols are at war with the Ming Dynasty, the present rulers of China, and Bu-yong’s death will be retaliation for one of their own Princess’s murder. It is here that both Choi and Yeo-sol falls for the lovely Chinese Princess, and soon the convoy ambushs Rambulhua’s forces and runs off with the Princess. Of course Rambulhua doesn’t take this sitting down and the chase is on.

If you thought my description of the movie was convoluted just from reading the above passages, let me assure you that all of the above takes place in the film’s first 30 minutes. The movie is not as convoluted as it appears, and is actually quite simple to follow. The plot points are as follows: Koreans in China. Koreans get lost in desert. Koreans find Chinese princess. Mongols chase Koreans. Koreans run. And run. And run some more. That, in a nutshell, is the entire plot of “Musa”. There is simply not much else to say about the film.

The movie is wall-to-wall bloody combat, with severed body parts, arrows piercing necks, and enough giant medieval weaponry cutting off or chopping into body parts to make even a butcher wince in embarrassment. “Musa” is a violent film and is practically drenched in blood. The violence is very realistic, ala Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. And like Gibson’s movie, the camera doesn’t flinch away from showing heads being decapitated and every conceivable method of killing a man with everything from an ax to a log to a giant spear is on display. If you can imagine a way to kill a man, “Musa” has got you covered.

Unlike “Braveheart”, which somehow managed to balance bloody violence with a sense of romanticism and adventure, “Musa” feels overwrought and just too long. The film clocks in at 154 minutes, and nearly half of that time is devoted to a castle siege at the end that just goes on and on and on… Much of “Musa”, like the long chase through the forest, the desert, and the prairies, could have been trimmed for pacing. Instead, we get one long chase that never seems to end and is only interrupted by bloody violence between the chasing Mongols and the chased Koreans.

This doesn’t mean “Musa” is completely without merit. I enjoyed the interplay between the characters, especially the noblemen soldiers and their slave army. The two groups are complete opposites, and this is apparent in everything from their dress to their weapons to their demeanor. The actors play off each other well, and much of the movie’s powerful moments occur when the two factions are at each other’s throats. Slowly but surely, we see the barriers of class start to disappear, as the lesser slave soldiers begin to assert themselves, and the nobles begin to die off.

You may have noticed that I said very little about the movie’s leads. What’s there to say? We are given a sappy love triangle between Princess Bu-yong, Yeo-sol, and Choi. Every now and then, Bu-yong would choose one of the two men, indicates that she favors one over the other, only to change her mind a second later like a spoiled child with too many choices and not enough sense. Indeed, Zhang Ziyi’s Bu-yong was annoying and seemed to exist for the simple purpose of giving the Mongols a reason to chase the Koreans. Oh, and of course she also gives Yeo-sol and Choi a reason to stare down each other every other half hour. With a movie that runs well over 2 hours, there is a lot of staring down to be had. The words trite, childish, and implausible come to mind concerning the movie’s love triangle.

Writer/director Sung-su Kim (“Please Teach me English”) is a long time veteran of the Korean film industry, with over 30 films to his credit. This is something of a shock, since many of the Korean films I’ve seen lately have been by newcomers with less than two credits (sometimes none) to their name. Kim had a good premise — Korean warriors in China — but became too infatuated with a hopeless romance that guarantees his movie will have one of those melodramatic/tragedy ending that all Asian filmmakers love so much. The movie’s real highlight is the cinematography by Hyung-ku Kim (“Spring In My Hometown”), who films the action with enough style and flair for five movies.

“Musa” the film should have taken a lesson from its hero and mercilessly slice off an hour or so from its running length. The film is simply too long with a Third Act that refuses to end, and a love triangle that will have anyone with an IQ over 50 laughing at the absurdity of it. But at least there was enough mind-numbing action to keep one entertained.

Sung-su Kim (director) / Sung-su Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Woo-sung Jung …. Yeo-sol
Sung-kee Ahn …. Jin-lib
Jin-mo Ju …. Choi Jung
Zhang Ziyi …. Princess Bu-yong
Yong-woo Park …. Ju-myeong
Rongguang Yu …. Rambulhua

Buy Musa on DVD