Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Strange Sleep

Why wasn’t I ecstatic?

For eight years, I had endured the worst presidency of my lifetime, and maybe all time. And now, finally, came an election which looked like a repudiation of those years. Not only was the new president-elect a Democrat (the most important qualification, to me), but he was also black, had a non-European name, and spoke against the petty partisanship that President George W. Bush seemed all too eager to promote during his time in office. There was also the larger Democratic majority in Congress. And then, there was the eloquent victory speech.

As I sat alone at a table in my local bar, watching the election returns on the big TV screen perched above the terraces of Jack Daniels and Jim Beams, my first feeling was of relief: the results were breaking in favor of Barack Obama. Before I knew it, the screen was broadcasting an image of a battle-worn John McCain making his concession speech. But McCain’s nomination as the Republican standard bearer was itself a kind of repudiation of Bush. McCain had been running away from Bush, the least popular U.S. president in the history of national polling. McCain proudly described himself as a “maverick” in order to distance himself from the Republican in the White House. Apparently, he didn’t distance himself enough.

Not long after, Obama strode across the screen to speak to the waiting crowd below and acknowledge his victory in a hard-won campaign.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I was never really — to use an expression thrown around by the candidate’s fervent male admirers during the race — “gay for Obama.” His lack of experience bothered me a lot. I thought that he’d make a good vice president or that he should have waited a few more years before tossing his hat in the ring. During the early days of the primary, when friends asked me what I thought of Obama, I’d reply, “I don’t disfavor him because he’s too black — I disfavor him because he’s too green.” But when the primary turned into a two-person showdown between Obama and Hillary Clinton, I cast my vote for the junior senator from Illinois because he seemed to me to be the most electable of the two, less of a polarizing figure. When Obama finally won the drawn-out primary, I was relieved.

I knew that Obama was a good speaker. Like a lot of folks, I was wowed by his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But I also knew that there was more to the presidency than being a good speaker. Still, I thought that skill would benefit him on the campaign trail. And I was profoundly moved when I watched Obama’s speech about race when he tried to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright without repudiating him (that would come later). Not only were Obama’s words eloquent, but they expressed a depth and complexity of thought worthy of a candidate for the highest office in the land. Also impressive was his choice of Joe Biden for the vice presidency: an old Washington hand who knew the corridors of Congress more intimately was, I thought, precisely the balance that the ticket needed. By the time I cast my ballot for Obama in the general election, I felt better about him — not jazzed, but better.

Now, here was Obama’s face on the TV screen speaking words just as eloquent as his stump speeches and presidential debates had promised. It was also the face of a black man. That’s one more ceiling whose shards need to be swept up. During the campaign, I imagined myself saying to a bigot, “No, that’s not why we call it the White House!” Now, it was a reality, a refutation to all those who thought that the only way for a black person to enter the Oval Office was through the servant’s door. Mine wasn’t the only heart swelling with national pride.

I knew that for a fact. By this time, the bar became a bit more crowded with multicolored faces watching the TV screen. And most of them cheered as Obama addressed the microphone (it was definitely a pro-Obama bar). As the president-elect spoke soaring words about America’s promise and the harrowing adversities that the country has vanquished, many of the bar’s patrons burst into applause, myself included. “We are and always will be the United States of America.” These words were very similar to words I’ve heard politicians use before, but Obama seemed to mean them, his voice ringing with conviction and sincerity.

But my cheers masked an uncheerful feeling. Here was the candidate that I wanted to win, voicing the kind of words that I had hoped to hear, but I was feeling down. How come?

Because I was thinking of how far this country has fallen under the sloppy stewardship of George W. Bush. As Obama spoke eloquently about his optimistic and inclusive vision of America, I thought about how, for too long, a slim majority of this country had been content to abide a national leader who usually spoke in a garbled syntax with a vocabulary not immune to malaproprisms. As Obama voiced apparently sincere words about the country needing to come together, I thought of a presidential candidate eight years ago who ran as “a uniter, not a divider,” and as president set about alienating or politically punishing all those who disagreed with him — and was at first rewarded for it. As Obama’s words moved me, I thought of how Bush’s words too often seemed crafted to hide a partisan agenda, to say something that they didn’t really mean. When Obama said the word “patriotism,” for instance, it didn’t seem to imply, as it frequently did when used by Bush, that anyone who didn’t share his party’s views was unpatriotic. As Obama delivered his address with coolness and introspection, I remembered how Bush was frequently petulant and unthinking in both word and deed. When Obama said to those who didn’t vote for him “I will be your president too,” I thought about how Bush had seemed satisfied to be president of only half of America.

When Obama ended his speech, I felt something that I hadn’t felt for a long time: inspired by a U.S. president. But mixed with my inspiration was sadness. Here was the kind of stirring, articulate, fair-minded spokesman for this country that America ought to have had these last eight years, but didn’t. A slender majority of Americans, until recently, were satisfied with a third-rate chief executive, as long as he read his Bible and seemed like a good guy to have a beer with — so what if he didn’t know how to govern the country or fight a war successfully?

And then, I thought of all the messes that Bush is leaving behind for his successor to clean up: the unsteady economy that primarily advantages the rich, two wars that need to be brought to a satisfactory end, the justice-dodging detention camps in Guantanamo Bay that need to be shut down, the secret surveillance programs that need to be stopped, the official use of torture that needs to be repudiated. I thought of how low this country has sunk in eight years, and it did so under the policies of a president so unlike the commanding, articulate speaker on the TV screen.

Why did this country put up with such a subpar president for so long? Why did we endure a president who, as I thought since his days as a candidate, was so obviously unqualified for the job? Why did we countenance a head of state who abused his power so horrendously? Did the attacks of 9/11 blind us into uncritical acceptance of our leader’s shortcomings? Was this country asleep for all that time, at least until the 2006 midterm elections? If so, it’s a sleep that we all need to shake off, like waking up from a nightmare — a really bad nightmare. And as Obama finished speaking, I was more in touch with the nightmare than with the morning light that his incoming administration promised.

From the crowd milling about on the barroom floor, a young black woman came up to my table. “You must be a McCain supporter,” she said. My sadness must have shown on my face, and she probably picked up on it. I told her I wasn’t. We then made some pro-Obama small talk for a few minutes before she vanished back into the buzzing crowd.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Last year, my middle-school-aged nephew worked on a class project about film music. As part of his assignment, he “interviewed” me via e-mail about soundtrack scores. Although I consider myself knowledgeable about film, music for motion-picture soundtracks isn’t my specialty, and I had to brush up a bit on the subject before I could get back to my nephew. My answers may not be perfect, but I did the best with his questions that I could. My reply e-mail went like this:

It’s good to hear from you! Your research project sounds like a good one, and I’m glad that you chose the topic you did. I’m also flattered that you want my opinions.

You ask some very good questions, and you deserve some brief answers to them. You should know that in my college work, I’m used to taking simple questions and spinning long, complicated answers out of them. And a lot of your questions, while short, lead to some complex answers. I’ll try to keep my answers brief, but bear with me if they are longer than what you want.

A) First, the obvious: Film scoring usually uses symphonic music, that is: music played by a large orchestra featuring strings, woodwinds, and percussion, the kind of orchestra that we are used to hearing play the music of such 19th-century composers as Beethoven, Wagner, etc. Film scores since the 1960s have used non-symphonic instruments, but symphonic music is the norm.

B) When thinking of film music vs. concert music, this brings up the difference between music written to accompany something to be looked at (a movie, a music video, etc.) vs. music to be listened to for its own sake. What is the difference in experiencing them? I’m sure that not many people would agree on an answer. But this question leads to another that always comes up when discussing film music: Is a film score better when it quietly supports what’s on the screen or when it stands out from the movie? There are different answers to this question, and you might want to ask [a music specialist] for his opinion.

Now that I’ve said that, I think I can go on to your questions:

1. What is your favorite film score?

My favorite score written directly for the screen is Philip Glass’s music for
Mishima (1985), the first “minimalist” score for a dramatic movie. I looked at the movie differently than if the music had just been strictly symphonic.

However, I need to put in a good word for another piece of film music. After seeing the silent French movie
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), contemporary [American] composer Richard Einhorn wrote an oratorio inspired by the film, an oratorio titled Voices of Light. After the music piece made its rounds in the concert halls, someone got the idea of matching up Voices of Light to The Passion of Joan of Arc, and I think that the results are simply amazing.

2. What, in your opinion, characterizes a great score?

I don’t think that there is any one single thing that makes a film score great. Anyone scoring a film must ask themselves a lot of questions: “Do I want a symphonic score or something else? Do I want a score that stands out from the movie’s images or something more modest?” The short answer is that a “great” film score is one that works best with the movie.

3. How has film scoring changed over the years?

There are a lot of answers to this question. If you look at the history of changes in concert music, you can probably find a corresponding change in film music. If you are looking for One Big Change, it would probably be the increasing use of non-symphonic music or instruments since the 1960s. An example would be Jerry Goldsmith’s score for
Planet of the Apes (1968), which featured the use of “primitive” instrumentation along with its symphonic score.

4. What has been one of the most influential film scores of all time?

Again, it’s hard to pin down just one. But if you think the use of non-symphonic instruments to be the most important change in film music, then the most influential score would have to be Anton Karas’ famous zither score for
The Third Man (1949), an unusual one-instrument soundtrack when most other films were scored with an orchestra.

5. What characterized early film music?

Of course, the earliest films were silent, and music had to be performed live. When sound came to film, music was no longer needed to run throughout the entire movie. Instead of the relatively long symphonic pieces played in the concert halls, the main innovation of early talking-movie music was the use of relatively short pieces of orchestral music — or “cues” — spaced at intervals (pauses) to make room for the dialogue scenes or scenes where no music was needed. Otherwise, movie music of the 1920s and 1930s was close to that of the popular orchestral music of the concert halls.

6. Who were the most notable composers of early film music?

Names of composers who wrote solid symphonic scores for Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s include Max Steiner (
Gone with the Wind, Casablanca), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Miklos Rozsa (Double Indemnity), and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane and many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies). In the ’50s and ’60s, notable scores were written for Italian movies by the Italian composers Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone.

7. How did the “live” music in silent movies segue into early recorded film music?

The most obvious “segue” was that early sound technologies, such as Vitaphone in the late 1920s, were developed primarily as a means of making orchestral scores available to smaller movie theatres, theatres that weren’t large enough to have an orchestra accompany the movie and had to make due with a piano player or an organist. In fact, the very first Vitaphone movie,
Don Juan (1926), had a recorded soundtrack consisting entirely of symphonic music and no spoken dialogue.

The movie that caused Hollywood to go from silent to sound was the enormously successful
The Jazz Singer (1927), starring the popular Broadway star Al Jolson. Although The Jazz Singer is frequently mentioned in histories of Hollywood, not many of them point out that the movie was a silent film with recorded musical songs. In other words, whenever Jolson isn’t singing in The Jazz Singer, it’s a silent movie whose dialogue is in intertitles. Many historians believe that the early sound systems were just going to continue putting recorded music to silent movies, but when Jolson started speaking improvised words in between his song’s verses, audiences became curious how movie stars would sound. Because of Jolson’s improvised bits of spoken dialogue, historians say, the “talkies” were born.

The rest of my comments in the e-mail were of a personal nature. However, not long after I sent the e-mail, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned the one piece film music that had been mentioned most often in my general readings on film: Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet film
Alexander Nevsky (1938).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

‘The Wild Girls Club’

After all these blog posts, I haven’t mentioned my height. An adult male, I stand less than five-feet tall. Why? I’m not an achondroplastic dwarf (like Peter Dinklage), but I do have a kind of dwarfism: spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda, which is a fancy way of saying “misshapen spine that shows up late in life.” Because of my dwarfism, SED tarda for short, my torso isn’t as tall as its supposed to be, cramming a few extra inches of gut into my abdomen and making my arms and legs look rather long in proportion.

Because of my unusual vantage point, I'm more sensitive than most to issues of height. I’ve noticed some discriminatory uses of size and stature in entertainment media. For example, a film or TV project — unless it’s catering to a shorter-than-average male star, such as Dustin Hoffman — will sometimes try to get its audience to root for a romantic pairing by pitting the preferred male partner against a shorter male rival. Examples of this include the “how we met” episode of the TV sitcom Mad About You and the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. (And to those who point to 1950s Lilliputian leading man Alan Ladd as an exception that disproves the rule, notice how his starring vehicles always disguised how short he was.)

Another media offering that comes to mind is the 1994 non-fiction book The Wild Girls Club: Tales from Below the Belt, written by sex-advice columnist Anka Radakovich. While not exactly brimming with anti-short-man bromides, the book does make a few asides that take the undesirability of shorter men for granted. Although the instances were few, they rankled me enough in September 1995 to fire off a letter to Radakovich:

Dear Ms. Radakovich:

I began reading The Wild Girls Club with lots of enthusiasm. It was great to get a flip, frank view of what it’s like to be a single woman in a culture that takes its sex drive too seriously. On this score, your book was very enjoyable. But as an adult male who stands less than five-feet tall, I was very put off by your put-downs of short men.

• On the respondents to your personal advertisement: “Immediately eliminated were guys under five foot seven…” (Why? Did they all have poor penmanship?)

• “At parties, I either attract sex-offender types or guys under five foot three who insist on dancing with their noses wedged directly into my cleavage.” (Are all short men so inconsiderate?)

• On party phone lines: “…With my luck, I’d probably fall in love with someone’s great personality, and he’d turn out to be a dwarf.” (What’s the moral here? Height is more important than a good personality? Does that mean that breast size is more important than a good personality?)

It’s tough enough trying to make my way in a world that’s always built to someone else’s size — trying to see over the dash of my car, trying to shave with a wall mirror that only lets me see my forehead, trying to find clothes that aren’t designed for ten-year-old boys. Now, I also have to listen to guys like me dissed in The Wild Girls Club just because of our proximity to the pavement.

Yes, I have a sense of humor. I can laugh along with you at the insensitive boyfriend or the crude would-be Casanova. But there’s a crucial difference. The insensitive boyfriend has the potential to see the error of his ways and become more caring. The crude would-be Casanova can always wise up and become more gentlemanly.

By contrast, once you’ve reached your full adult height, there’s not a helluva lot you can do to change it. And I hate being bashed because of something I can’t control.

The Wild Girls Club promised to be a perceptive social satire about sex. But I now question the writer’s perceptions. How can I trust her to spoof the foibles of others when she seems so oblivious to her own?

How did Ms. Radakovich react to my letter? I have no idea. I never heard back from her. For all I know, my letter never made it past her secretary.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Soul of the Dark Knight

The next Batman movie swoops into theatres soon. I enjoyed director Christopher Nolan’s (Memento) previous take on the character, Batman Begins (2005), and I’m looking forward to his next installment, The Dark Knight (brave of him, I think, not to use the name “Batman” in the title).

So, to celebrate the crime-fighter’s return to the cinema screens, I thought that I’d recall how catastrophically wrong Warner Bros.’ (mis)handling of the character had been in its three sequels between their first installment, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and Batman Begins: Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman & Robin (1997). After seeing the last title, I was so soured by the experience that I wrote Warner Bros. Pictures then-chairmen, Robert Daly and Terry Semel, a letter in July 1997 detailing my dissatisfaction:

Dear Mr. Daly and Mr. Semel:

Please stop destroying Batman.

Back in 1989, Warner Bros. brilliantly brought the classic comic-book character to the screen. Many factors can claim credit for Batman’s phenomenal success: an audience familiar with the property, the eye-catching costumes, the baroque art direction, the pulse-pounding musical score, the delirious cinematography. But these elements finish second, at best, to a more crucial component: a well-told story about believable people.

What made the first Batman movie soar was its attention to the psychology of its characters. The film eased up on the action long enough to let us understand that Batman’s thirst for justice grew out of a deep emotional trauma. The story also carefully laid the groundwork for the Joker’s insanity, allowing us to understand that his own extreme behavior grew out of an equally extreme emotional shock.

And the story built upon the psychological intensity of these two adversaries. As tightly crafted as the narrative was, it never forgot that the audience’s investment in the action and spectacle was utterly dependent on how well they could understand and relate to the humanity of the characters.

In short, the inaugural Batman film gave us a gripping story about human beings, not flat cardboard cut-outs.

Unfortunately, each successive entry in the Batman series increasingly neglected people for pageantry, psychology for special effects. Now, your latest offering, Batman & Robin, has strayed so far from the excellence of the original as to be almost unrecognizable as a sequel.

Rather than taking the time to establish the characters so that the audience can understand their emotional underpinnings, Batman & Robin’s characters are introduced in the blink of an eye. For instance, the woman who becomes Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is first seen awkwardly announcing her backstory into a tape recorder. Instead of showing the audience what brought Poison Ivy to this turn of events — thereby letting us feel for her — the film clumsily tells us what’s going on. Her transformation into the costumed villainess is so sudden and convoluted that it comes off as a silly contrivance. And her villainous actions are conveniently blamed on her environmental extremism.

Although the film tries to build an emotional center around the Bruce Wayne-Alfred relationship, their affinity is only hinted at through fleeting and intrusive flashbacks. In other words, cinematic shorthand in Batman & Robin takes the place of the emotional development in your first movie.

But solid characterization appears to be a luxury that Batman & Robin can’t afford. The movie is so busy cramming its story full of familiar comic-book figures (Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Batgirl) that it doesn’t have time to plumb their psychological depths and let us understand them. Their uncommon origins and motives must be conveyed as hastily and superficially as possible. The filmmakers’ attitude seems to be that the audience already knows who these characters are, so there’s no point in fleshing them out.

I’m sure that some of the creators behind Batman & Robin will point to the success of the campy 1960s Batman TV show to justify their cartoonish take on the material. But the mocking tone of the TV series proved to be a dead end, and the show died after three short seasons.

The studio’s approach to the film series appears to be ignoring an important fact: Batman gained his current following after the satirical TV show ended. In a successful effort to revamp the hero’s image, DC Comics brought Batman “back to basics” in the early 1970s. Robin was sent away to college, and Batman — now a lone, shadowy figure — regained his hard edge. Reminding the readers of Batman’s scarred psychology, the comics stopped portraying the costumed hero as a knee-jerk do-gooder (as the TV series had) and started portraying him as a vulnerable human being who obsessively fights crime in order to rechannel the impossibility of avenging his murdered parents.

In fact, Batman became so obsessive that his actions in the comics sometimes bordered on the blood-thirsty. Though he never completely crossed the line into criminality, Batman regained his status as a menacing presence, pushing the envelope of justice. After all, Bruce Wayne adopted the identity of Batman in order to strike terror into the hearts of criminals. The bat is not a comforting creature: it’s an animal often associated with darkness and fright. And Batman’s image plays on these fearful associations. The popular appeal of Batman’s serious, shadowy, and all-too-human image was confirmed in 1986 by the runaway success of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

The first Batman movie in 1989 skillfully employed this dark image, and this is why the nocturnal look of the sets and costumes is so appropriate. But the sequels have increasingly shied away from the dark side in favor of flashy special effects and snide humor.

My own disaffection for the direction of the Batman films appears to be mirrored by other movie-goers. The latest box-office reports say that Batman & Robin’s grosses have plummeted precipitously. Now, a once sure-fire summer “hit” looks like it will have trouble recouping its $100-million+ production costs. I’m sure that many will blame this phenomenon on Men in Black competing for the same audience.

Meanwhile, another action film, Paramount’s Face/Off, one more movie arguably competing for Men in Black’s viewers, is holding its own at the box office. Like the first Batman movie, Face/Off is a character-driven adventure that probes the dark side of justice, the ambiguity of good and evil. If you took away the gunfights and the explosions in Face/Off, you could still have a satisfying psychological drama. Because of this, I predict that Face/Off will continue to perform well for the rest of the season, while Batman & Robin rapidly declines.

As an aficionado of Batman for the last 30 years, I urge Warner Bros. to return to the humanity and integrity of your 1989 film. And as a script consultant working in Hollywood, I can offer a few modest suggestions about how to do this:

1. Limit each movie to one major villain apiece. The series’ biggest problem is that there are too many characters whose unusual origins must be explained. As a result, story time that could be used to explore the characters is, instead, taken up by introducing one villain after another. Crowding each movie with a plethora of villains and supporting characters played by big-name stars might make for a good-looking marquee, but it intrudes on valuable story time.

2. Take the time to develop the characters. The audience’s investment in a movie vitally hinges on their ability to understand and relate to the characters. By devoting more screen time to showing — not telling — what motivates these fictional figures (and less on crowded casting and special effects), the Batman movies can create a more emotionally rewarding experience. This is what will draw the repeat viewers. (I saw the first Batman three times!)

3. Use realistic action scenes to extend the characterization. I don’t like gratuitous violence, but I can respect action scenes when they grow organically out of the story and psychology. The less the characters are developed, the less the viewer understands what brings Batman and the bad guys to blows. Batman & Robin in particular stresses unrealistic, gravity-defying fight choreography over narrative credibility. Consequently, the violent set-pieces seem farcical and obligatory. If the Batman series can return to grounding the violence in a realistic, character-driven context, the action can advance and enhance the story line.

4. Never forget that Batman has a dark side. A well-adjusted person does not put on a bat-suit and fight crime. Batman battles crime in order to battle his own internal demons. As long as the audience understands Batman’s haunted past, the movies can hone a compelling human edge. The first film did a marvelous job of conveying Batman’s unbalanced psyche, but Batman & Robin portrays the title characters as fighting crime simply because it’s “what they do.” As a result, the humanity is missing, and the movie plays like a two-dimensional parody of a comic-book, much as the 1960s TV series did.

I would like to assure you, gentlemen, that I am not pitching any scripts or story lines for the next Batman project. Nor am I trying to procure a position for myself in the Warner Bros. Story Department. What’s more, I’m sure that Warner Bros. has been inundated over the years with unsolicited suggestions by other prescriptive Batman fans.

But given my severe disappointment with Batman & Robin after I admired the first Batman so much, I feel the need to recall the inherently dramatic elements that make Batman such a compelling property. On the other hand, if Warner Bros. insists on treating the character as a one-dimensional figure to be satirized or ridiculed, the studio risks alienating Batman’s core audience.

If Warner Bros. continues making Batman movies according to its current formula (multiple villains, crowded story lines, hasty characterization, special effects and comedy overshadowing narrative credibility), your future sequels might open well, but they will probably sink out of sight. And I would like to see Warner Bros. prosper by making movies that maximize their material’s best potential.

If you want to preserve the integrity and the profitability of one of the most enduring figures in popular culture — if you want to make fascinating action films that elicit good word-of-mouth, repeated viewings, and repeated ticket-buying — I urge you to return to the character-driven drama of the first Batman movie. I urge you to make Batman human again.

So went my words back in 1997. I’m not swell-headed enough to think that someone gave Christopher Nolan my letter and he got with the program. Instead, I think that a lot of other people who respect the character of Batman, Nolan included, shared most of my thoughts on what Warners was doing wrong and acted to right the situation — as Nolan certainly has. However, he seems to perpetuate the older sequels’ more-than-one-villain-per-film recipe, which I think he should avoid.

One other amusing piece of trivia: shortly after I sent my letter to them, Daly and Semel resigned as the chairs of Warner Bros. Far be it from me to claim that my letter was the cause of their resignations, but I can’t help wondering if their mishadling of the Batman franchise — and the dismal box-office performance of Batman & Robin in particular — played some part in their unexpected departure.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

‘Musa: The Warrior’

I’ve been watching too many action movies that are from Hong Kong. Now, whenever I see an Asian costume movie set around the Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, with its characters brandishing weapons, I expect the hallmarks of crown-colony cinema: stark Manichean contrasts between good and evil; impossible action choreography achieved by wirework; equally impossible sword fights with the heroes victoriously emerging unscarred; characters literally flying through the air; one or more fantasy elements (usually achieved via CGI) in the narrative; rapid Cubist editing that makes both the action and the story difficult to follow. In short, period Asian swordplay movies — or wuxia pian — have come to connote comic-book stories with video-game aesthetics.

This assumption on my part made Kim Sung-Su’s Korean film
Musa (무사, 2001) something of a revelation. I hesitate to call Musa (English title: The Warrior) an action film or a swashbuckler, although all of the requisite elements are there: a Ming-era Chinese setting, colorful period costumes, good guys and bad guys, sword fights, and bloody battles. However, Kim’s approach to his material is so distant from the aesthetics of the typical Asian period action movie that it seems to be of a different genre altogether. Musa is not a story of derring-do, although its characters do daring things. Instead, the film takes the settings, costumes, and weaponry that have become so mythologized to Asian audiences, and then realistically applies them to a plausible situation. And throughout the film, its complex characters (even if rooted in action-movie archetypes) never devolve into simplistic stick figures. Musa stands as far apart from the typical wuxia pian as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (七人の, 1954) stands from the typical Japanese samurai flick — although Kim’s storyline is not as brilliant as Kurosawa’s.

What is that storyline? A group of Korean emissaries to China’s new Ming emperor are expelled from the country as spies. Abandoned in the desert, the emissaries come across a Ming princess held captive by a bandit leader loyal to China’s deposed Yuan rulers. To get into the good graces of the Ming emperor, the emissaries (many of whom are soldiers) rescue the princess from the bandit leader and struggle to take her back to civilization. But the bandit leader and his men pursue them to get the princess back, and
Musa stages one arduous-looking action scene after another as the Koreans try to ward off the relentless bandits.

I haven’t seen very many Korean movies, so I’m not familiar with the Korean actors who play the heroic rescuers — and all of whom are very good in their roles, by the way. But the international cast also includes recognizable figures from Chinese and Hong Kong cinema: Yu Rongguang (
Iron Monkey, The East Is Red) as the bandit leader and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Memoirs of a Geisha) as the Ming princess.

All of the
wuxia pian’s usual elements were there. Heroic swordsmen? Check. Noblewoman in distress? Check. Evil bad guy? Check. Exotic desert setting? Check. Bloody sword fights? Double check! But the entire tone and mood of the film were different. Gone was the distracting wirework. Gone was the too-perfect action choreography. Gone was the too-quick editing. In their places was a believable story about believable people doing believable things — told at an easy-to-follow pace. For instance, the Koreans rescue the princess not out of some chivalric motive, but to earn the trust of the Ming emperor. The battle scenes are appropriately bloody — very bloody — and the fighters are realistically wounded in them. And the story ends on a depressingly bleak note that no generic swashbuckler would tolerate. The only nod to action-movie unreality that Musa makes is when a diplomat’s silent slave (Jung Woo-Sung) reveals himself to be a gifted master swordsman. Also, the film is more of an ensemble piece than implied by the lone figure of its English title, The Warrior.

Musa, I felt that the costumed Asian action movie had been reclaimed from the exclusivity of the fantasy lovers. Not that fantasy can’t be fascinating in its own way when it’s done right, but the wuxia pian has been so taken over by unrealistic story elements that the genre appears almost totally divorced from lived experience: even the swords in Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time (東邪西毒1994) could destroy mountains with a single stroke; even the fighters in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍, 2000) could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Comparing Musa to the average wuxia pian would be like comparing a realistic, cynical Sam Peckinpah western to the black-hat/white-hat westerns of years before. Where the Asian swordplay movies take place in some other-worldly setting, Musa inhabits a recognizable world. Because of this, Kim’s film finds maturity and meaning in a genre long ago abandoned to the mythological.

Zhang Ziyi in ‘Musa: The Warrior’ (2001)

But what stops me from recommending
Musa to the regular movie-goer is the despair of its ending. I won’t say exactly how the film concludes, but to call it downbeat would be an understatement. Towards the film’s final scenes, the suffering endured by the Koreans and the princess at the hands of the bandit leader becomes so excruciating that the viewer suffers slightly as well. The only way Musa could have redeemed the protagonists’ grueling agony would have been to end with their triumph. But such is not the case.

Musa’s uniqueness was driven home to me by the next film I watched: He Ping’s Chinese period swashbuckler The Warriors of Heaven and Earth (天地英雄, 2003). As engaging as the film was, it overflowed with predictable Asian action-movie tropes: the wirework, the unrealistic fight choreography, the heroes who single-handedly vanquish hordes without being injured, and — most dissatisfying — the CGI-dependent supernatural story element that is introduced way too late in the narrative and provides its deus ex machina ending. The absence of these things in Musa is precisely what makes the Korean film so refreshing.

Musa reclaims the costumed Asian action movie for audiences who like stories set in the real world. Marred by its gloomy ending, the film may herald a new impulse in an old genre, a genre too rich with possibilities to dwell solely in the realm of the fantastical.