Judge Joel Pearce is a little disappointed this Korean epic doesn't have characters with names like Swan, Ajax, Cochise, and Rembrandt.
"If a soldier tries to live, he will die. If he tries to die, he will certainly live."—General Choi Jung
I really like Musa (The Warrior). It's a great adventure film, pulling together the best features of epic battle movies, westerns, and martial arts pictures. Unfortunately, along with an Americanized title, Sony's release of The Warrior is highly compromised.
Facts of the Case
Although The Warrior isn't as complicated as it sounds, the setup is quite convoluted. A diplomatic embassy is sent from Korea to China during the battle between the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. These emissaries want to make peace with the new government, but are accused of being spies instead. They're sent on a very long walk through a very dry desert. They are led by a young General named Choi Jung (Jin-mo Ju, 3-Iron), who takes over when the lead emissary dies. He is aided by the much more experienced Jin-lib (Sung-Kee Ahn, My Beautiful Girl, Mari). They also have a secret weapon in the form of a freed slave named Yeo-sol (Woo-sung Jung), who does very impressive things with a spear.
Tired and frustrated, they hatch a plan when they see a Chinese princess (Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers) who has been kidnapped by Yuan troops. If they can kidnap her back and return her to the new Ming leaders, they will be free to return home. That's the plan, at least…
Confusing and convoluted setup aside, The Warrior is actually a slick, fast-paced action movie that will appeal to fans of both historical epics and westerns. Once it gets rolling, it plays out as a series of increasingly complex battles, as the Korean band reluctantly takes a shattered village under its wing and tries to protect them. Though the setting is historical China, it feels more like an American western than anything else. It's the same old story of a small, outnumbered troop of noble warriors trying to protect a wagon from a vicious army.
While The Warrior does have a lot of the typical stock characters for the genre, it spends an unusual amount of time letting them grow and change. I was impressed by the growth of the young General as he realizes how important it is to rely on the judgment and help of others. Suhn-kee ahn is typically great as Jin-lib, a politically cautious man who knows how to deal with both officers and the common men. Zhang Ziyi's performance is one of her best as well, though she is not a warrior (as suggested by the cover).
While the film deals with issues of honor and valor, it is a nationalistic celebration of Korean courage, not a thoughtful exploration into the nature of war. It's a story of men who are completely committed to what they believe is right, and willing to do whatever it takes to defend their honor. It is occasionally cheesy, but usually strikes the perfect balance between tragic melodrama and militaristic cheer. The action sequences are bold and bloody, drumming up feelings of both excitement and disgust. They are brilliantly filmed, reminiscent of Ridley Scott's work in Gladiator more than anything else. Sprays of blood and sand flash past the screen in slow-motion, overcranked glory as the heroes tear through dozens of savage Mongols. The battle scenes alone make The Warrior worth a watch for anyone who loves martial arts and adventure films.
For everyone else, it's a slightly harder sell. It is, at times, an overwrought piece of nationalistic propaganda, but it has strong enough character development to make it feel more human than that. There is a longer version in Korea, but I think an additional 30 minutes would probably make the film drag a bit. This international version strikes a fine balance between adventure and epic. Any more cuts would have sacrificed the strong characters, while any fewer would have slowed the pace down too much.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was first introduced to The Warrior a couple years ago when I purchased Modern Audio's Hong Kong edition of the film. It has a decent video transfer, fine subtitles, and a great sound transfer, so I was looking forward to seeing what Sony would be able to bring to the table.
I have little good to say about Sony's new Region One release. The only good news is that the video transfer is fantastic, cleaning up some dirt and fixing some color level issues present in other versions of the film.
Now, the bad news: The only choices for audio are a flat stereo transfer in the original Korean, or a quasi-surround English dub that has simply added a bit of depth in the surrounds. The only English subtitles are a direct rendering of the loose dub translation. The dub itself is lifeless and poorly timed. The cover tries to sell the film as a Chinese swordplay film, even though Zhang Ziyi does no fighting and Yeosol doesn't once use a sword through the whole film.
The only extras Sony bothered to put on the disc are a handful of trailers and TV spots. I don't understand why Sony treats some Asian films like gold, and others like crap. The Warrior deserves to be treated better than this.
Although I appreciate Sony's commitment to getting involved in the foreign release game, I also recommend that curious parties go through the extra effort to hunt down the region-free Hong Kong edition. The video transfer isn't that much worse, and the sound transfer is worlds better. Sony needs to learn that there is a market for foreign films, as long as they treat them with respect.
The producers of the film are free to go, but if Korean warriors are as cranky about this release as I am, Sony had better watch out. Those guys are pretty determined.
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