Title: Musa (The Warrior)
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Joo Jin-mo
Genre: Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Drama
Rating: ★★★★★ | 5.0
warnings: violence, gore
I’m probably not going to do a good job reviewing it properly for this blog because I have too many thoughts to even begin to summarise, but if you guys can handle gore/bloody battle scenes, I highly recommend y’all watch Musa (The Warrior), which stars Jung Woo-sung and Joo Jin-mo. It’s an old favourite of mine and it honestly does everything right.
The overall plot is about a small diplomatic mission from Goryeo (Korea) that gets sent to China right around the turn of the Ming Dynasty, when Zhu Yuanzhang emerged victorious from the war with Toghon Temur, the last Mongol Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China. Because Goryeo had previously plead allegiance to the Yuan Dynasty, the diplomatic mission is jailed and then sent into exile in the Gobi Desert.
The Goryeo mission is led by the young general Choi Jeong, a member of the yangban (the aristocratic ruling class), who decides to rescue Princess Furong, the daughter of the new Ming Emperor, in hopes that she will provide the leverage they need to get back to Goryeo. In the process, he frequently comes into conflict with Yeo-sol, the former slave of the second envoy, who died during their journey. They are also pursued by Rambulwha, a Yuan general under the leadership of Koke Temur, who aims to recapture the princess and re-establish the collapsing Mongol empire in China.
It’s one of the most beautifully shot political films I’ve ever watched precisely because it rejects politics itself and chooses to focus on individuals who are at work within the distinct but overlapping political systems of Goryeo, Yuan, and Ming, as well as the internal conflicts in all three. The film does the best job I’ve ever seen of not vilifying any of the parties involved, even though the Yuan soldiers are ostensibly the antagonists.
There’s also a lot of class tension between the yangban soldiers and the commoner soldiers in the Korean camp, and while in the Ming camp, the peasants are resentful at a privileged princess for whom they are constantly asked to give. (It’s also not explicit within the narrative, but Ming was the second and last peasant dynasty in China––while most of the other dynasties were founded by rebellious nobles or foreign princes, both the second––Han––and second-to-last––Ming––imperial dynasties of China were founded by commoners––Liu Bang and Zhu Yuanzhang, respectively.)
It also does a really good job of capturing the complicated navigation of subjugation, both on an interpersonal and on a state level. The envoy itself was sent from Goryeo to Ming because Goryeo had formerly been a tribute state of Yuan, and prior to that a tribute state of Song and Tang, and so the navigating of this form of cultural imperialism comes at a very steep cost, and the envoy then has to face these problems––they are not in a good place with either the Yuan or the Ming, and so can look to neither for help in returning to Goryeo.At the same time, the point is made that even if they were to return to Goryeo, they would hardly be welcomed back as heroes, having failed to succeed in their mission and having failed to protect the envoys.
A lot of this is explicated not through grand, sweeping statements that paint complicated imperial politics with broad brushstrokes, but with the more subtle interpersonal interactions. There is a clear sense of hierarchy and tension from the start: though Choi Jeong calls the shots, there is an uneasy veneer of unity among the members of the envoy, as only the armoured yangban soldiers follow him unquestioningly. The more he seeks to exert his authority over all of the soldiers, the more the common soldiers begin to bristle and question his decisions, question why they’re the ones tasked with the hardest, most dangerous, most menial work.
And Yeo-sol, though originally a slave, is incredibly loyal to his yangban master, even as he sides with the common soldiers and bristles at Choi Jeong’s often brash attempts to lead the camp. The dynamic between Yeo-seol and Choi Jeong is incredibly fraught, as the latter is unable to see the former as anything other than a slave. And the way Yeo-seol negotiates what it means to be free and to have choice even as he feels tied to his master, as he feels tied to this envoy, is one of the quieter struggles of the film, but ultimately, I would argue, an incredibly important one, and not only in terms of the way it takes an unflinching look at slavery during the Goryeo Dynasty and what sorts of tragedies of agency this enacts. All the envoys are bound by duty––even Choi Jeong, ostensibly in charge, feels incredible pressure to live up to his father and do right by his men––but Yeo-seol more than the others, because at least the others have grown up free.
And in the background, there’s a really soft, subtle––unspoken, really––love triangle that develops between Princess Furong, Yeo-sol, and Choi Jeong that brings this tension to the forefront––both men are subject to her, but they navigate that subjection in different ways, and she navigates their subjection (or lack thereof) in different ways also. The contrast between Choi Jeong, sitting atop his horse in his armour with his hair bound and Yeo-sol, in loose, baggy robes and long, unkempt hair, often filmed as the body of labour and not the body of man, is striking. It’s even more striking against the yellow silks that Princess Furong wears––she is the reason they fight, yet she herself is untouched by war, keeping her hands clean of blood even as it’s shed on her behalf.
But I think the major success of this film is in its use of language. Specifically, the fact that they all speak their native languages, and this presents real problems in communication, and they often must speak through translators or through a lingua franca (here presented as Mandarin, but Mandarin in its present form wouldn’t have been around in the late 1300s). This really rigid, institutionalised form of communication between people further drives a wedge between them, and becomes in some ways a replication of the bureaucratic imperial system that’s the cause of the envoys’ exile to begin with.
So it’s notable, then, that the film’s emotional centre––Yeo-sol––is a man of action who has few words to spare. And it’s notable that the film’s investment in the relationship between Yeo-sol and Furong is largely an unspoken one–their courtship is carried out in glances stolen rather than words said, and what words are said are unintelligible in any case, because neither speaks the other’s language. By operating outside of the regimented system of speech, the film offers us a way out through their interactions, which occur outside of the court, outside of the territory claimed or the allegiances formed by any of the three kingdoms, and on their own terms.*
The film is two hours long, but it doesn’t feel it. Though the narrative arc is one relentless, unceasing push forward until they are all but driven into the sea, and while at times it feels purposefully relentless, even the lulls don’t feel still, so rife are they with tension both internal and external. And even as the film is about statehood, and about war, it’s even more a drama about the people who get consumed by statehood, who are sacrificed to war. It’s about people who take responsibility for the actions of empires. Individuality is subsumed into this larger project of state-building, and the film never lets you forget its foundational question: was it worth it?
If you had to pick only one East Asian historical drama to watch, honestly? Make a choice between Musa and Seven Samurai.
* Because Classical Chinese and whichever Chinese dialect was the lingua franca at the time are the result of Chinese imperialism within Korea (via cultural export and the conferring of a “tribute state” status onto Goryeo, and later Joseon), even a love in translation is not one that occurs outside the structure of governance.