This assumption on my part made Kim Sung-Su’s Korean film Musa (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 (七人の侍, 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.
Watching 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 (1994) could destroy mountains with a single stroke; even the fighters in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (, 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 (, 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.