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Musa (2001)

The Warrior, Musa the Warrior, The Warrior Princess, The Warriors, Wu shi (Manadarin)

We must go back to Koryo!

Directed by:

Kim Sung-su

Rating: 10/10

Running Time: 127 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: China, Korea (South)

China, 1375. The newly established Ming dynasty is driving its predecessor, the Yuans, back to the Mongol plains. Amidst these tensions a small Korean peace delegation finds itself banished to the North of China by the Mings. Barely themselves surviving a Yuan attack that wipes out their Ming escort, the Koreans embark upon the impossible journey back home across the punishing desert. After encountering a troop of Yuan cavalrymen who are holding the Ming princess Bu-yong (Zhang House of Flying Daggers Zi-yi) captive, the Koreans decide to rescue her and take her home to Nanjing instead, hoping that her deliverance will restore to them the favour of the Mings. Yet the fearsome Yuan general Rambulhua (Yu ‘Iron Monkey’ Rong-kwong) has taken a blood-oath to recapture the princess, and it soon becomes clear that the remaining Koreans will have to take one last desperate stand in the middle of nowhere against the superior numbers of their enemy.

Kim Sung-su’s ‘The Warrior’ is the first South Korean film to have been shot in cinemascope, offering vast desert panoramas the likes of which have not been seen since David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962). This unforgiving ochre sandscape, and later a perilous forest and a wintry coastal fortress, become the settings for epic struggles – an arduous journey homewards, and a siege war fought over a woman – in the grand tradition of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’. In fact ‘The Warrior’ is everything that the recent Homer-inspired Troy (2004) should have been – for it has all the sublime spectacle and vicious skirmishing of Wolfgang Petersen’s film, but none of the sentimental melodrama or cheesy dialogue. And thanks to meticulous production design and astonishingly vivid performances all round, its heroes really do look like homesick, battle-weary desperadoes rather than comfortable actors let loose on a big set.

In ‘The Warrior’, events move very fast, situations explode into chaos without warning, and fighting is bloody and brutal, but the film always remains firmly focussed on the individuals caught up in the action, bringing their contrasting characters together to create a complex portrait of heroism. The deadliest of the Koreans is the spearman Yeo-sol (Jung Woo-sung), but as a recently freed slave he takes orders from nobody – especially not from the young general Choi (Joo Jin-mo), whose thirst for glory is matched only by his imperiousness, self-doubt and lack of concern for the welfare of others. The fierce loyalty of the older lieutenant Ga-nam (Park Jung-hak) to his general is tested to its limits, while the veteran archer Jin-lip (Ahn Sung-ki) just wants to get as many of his men home alive as possible. The Mongol Rambulhwa, on the other hand, nobly carries out a sworn duty which he knows to be futile, and far from being portrayed as a villain, is very much the Koreans’ heroic equal, flaws and all. As these five warriors come into confrontation with one another, with the princess, and with a host of unusually well-delineated minor characters, ‘The Warrior’ reveals a rich strand of humanism and psychological insight reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) – no small accomplishment for a writer/director as young as Sung-su, for whom this is an extraordinary feature debut.

In short, ‘The Warrior’ is one of the two finest war epics, along with Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998), to appear in the past twenty five years. Realistic, subtle and relentlessly grim, it captures the essence of war in all its blood and glory.

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It's Got: Nuanced, intense performances (especially from Ahn Sung-ki as Jin-lip, Park Jung-hak as Ga-nam and Yu Rong-kwong as Rambulhwa) that put the entire cast of Troy to shame; fast and bloody action; complex characterization and subtle character interactions; sumptuous cinematography; ferocious battles; and insights into death, glory and the human condition that would do Kurosawa, or even Homer, proud.

It Needs: Not a thing.

DVD Extras Disc One: digitally remastered and restored 16:9 anamorphic version (enhanced for widescreen); scene selection; choice of Korean dts/Korean Dolby digital 5.1/English dub; optional English subtitles and SDH; full audio commentary by Bey Logan and Mike Leeder, who, hardly in their best form, get the different actors names confused, rattle on about how much they fancy Zhang Zi-yi and other Asian actresses, and meander through largely irrelevant digressions on Hong Kong cinema. Disc Two: Trailers; Inside the Warrior (56min) featurette including interviews with writer/director Kim Sung-su, producer Cho Min-hwuan, CG artist Kim Tae-hoon, action director Jung Doo-hong, lighting director Lee Gang-san, art director Hu Ting-chao, special make-up artist Shin Chae-ho, and most of the cast; Legend in the Making: an Interview with Yu Rong-kwong (28min) about his background in the Peking Opera, his captaincy of the Chinese Star Football Team, his character in The Warrior, and the arduousness of the 6-month desert shoot; Songs of the Desert (7min), in which Kim Sung-su, Joo Jin-mo and Ahn Sung-ki introduce their favourite themes from the soundtrack; animated photo gallery; out-takes (5min); candid camera (8min); behind-the-action (11min), with a narrated voice-over explaining the special effects, and a sequence where the cast improvises a song about the pleasures of Koreas favourite dish, kimchi; Designing the Warrior (6min), Kim Sing-su discussing the films look, storyboards, costumes and props; twenty-four excellent deleted scenes (25min); biographies of stars Zhang Zi-yi, Joo Jin-mo and Jung Woo-sung). Note that The Warrior is also now available together with Bichunmoo in a Premier Asia boxset. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Alexander, Bichunmoo, The Hidden Fortress, The Seven Samurai, The Thin Red Line, Troy

Summary

Forget 'Troy', forget 'Alexander' – this is war epic at its most intense, bloody and gripping, with no added cheese.

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