Five years of planning and production, a seven million dollar budget, and three hundred staff shooting over five months travelling ten thousand kilometres across the Chinese continent. It is unfortunate that these figures speak to me (and probably you) more than the names involved with the production of MUSA: The Warrior. This film is the result of an amazing creative process, with the time and effort invested clearly displayed on screen.
This was made on a seven million dollar budget? Oh my. As a technical achievement alone, MUSA stands without peer amongst every period action piece ever made. As disgustingly exaggerated as that may sound, it’s true. Huoting Xiao and his art team have created in MUSA a thing of great beauty, perfectly complimented by Hyung-Koo Kim’s cinematography. This film is a true joy to watch – there is a harsh perfection in every shot, with every drop of blood, every bead of sweat and every tear so wonderfully defined that the viewing experience is at once strangely alienating and hypnotising. It is difficult not to approach these images without removing them from the context of film (and thinking WOW!), but they are so grounded in emotion that they cannot be separated from the pain they create on screen. This is entirely due to Kim Sung-Su’s masterful direction and Hyun Kim’s frankly brilliant cinematography. It is unfortunate that the former is overshadowed by the latter so heavily during the action sequences (ie. most of the film), but where Kim really holds his own is in the character work.
There are two versions of MUSA floating around – a local (Korean) release, and an international (festival) print. Having seen both, I’m pleased to say that the Korean cut, although perhaps a little more effective in its characterisation, isn’t as inestimably superior as some people (apparently) make out. Admittedly there is more opportunity given to the actors to fully realise their own characters and their relationships with one another, including some truly heart-wrenching stuff from Doo-Il Lee as monk Jee San and Yong-Woo Park as interpreter Joo Myung, the film doesn’t really suffer from the exclusion of this material. The two leads, Woo-Sung Jung and Jin-Mo Joo, give truly stellar performances (at least, that’s the impression I get from the emotion behind the subtitles!), backed up by the thematic heroism that runs through the whole film. Unfortunately it’s clear from the beginning that everything will end in tears, but personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So what’s wrong with it? Well, at 154 minutes it’s not a short film, and it sags at times because you find yourself waiting for the inevitable. The audience’s own association with the characters is unfortunately undermined in places because you know how it’s going to finish, but by the time MUSA reaches its bloody conclusion this is made pretty much redundant (and meanwhile you can always just watch Zhang Ziyi.)
There are so many other things I could praise MUSA for. The score is sheer genius — no mouth and all trousers, it calls (almost) no attention to itself yet delivers again and again, perfectly complementing the astounding visuals. The editing, too, deserves far more attention than I’ve given it, and the sound design is truly a work of art. Ah well.
If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a modern love song to wuxia and chivalry, then MUSA is the, er, consummation of this new relationship between old word values and new world ‘entertainment’ — loud, messy and intense, but ultimately rewarding. Magnificent stuff.