Who knew that protecting a princess would be so violent and unpleasant?
The year is 1375. The 7-year-old Ming Dynasty of China and the 457-year-old Goryeo Dynasty of Korea are not getting along. The murder of a Ming diplomat in Korea has made relations even worse. A pair of Korean envoys and their entourage attempt to reach the Chinese capital of Nanjing to maybe reach some sort of understanding, but the Chinese arrest them and send them into exile.
On their way through the desert to wherever, the Koreans and the Chinese troops who are escorting them are set upon by a band of Mongol troops, remnants of China’s recently ousted Yuan Dynasty. The chief envoy is the first one killed. The Mongols, still bitter over their loss of China, kill the Ming soldiers who had been escorting the Koreans. On the other hand, the Mongols are not quite as upset at Korea’s ambivalent response towards the Yuan’s defeat, so they spare the Koreans who survived the initial attack. Of course, the Koreans are in the desert with only two horses, a dead envoy, and a second envoy who is probably too old and frail to survive the trek.
The young General Choi-Jung decides that they should make their way to a certain town where there is a ferry to take them back to Korea, even though they will be disgraced as failures when they get there. In any case, they are still stuck in the desert. The heat, the cold, the sandstorms. More people die, including the second envoy, though not before he frees his slave Yeo-sol. Yeo-sol remains loyal to his former master, taking his body to find a proper burial spot.
Uh…it was a different time?
Finally out of the desert, the surviving Koreans make their way to what seems like a small trading post. With what little money they have, the soldiers are able to buy some weapons. In the meantime, a group of Mongols and Central Asians show up, and are suspicious of these Koreans carrying Mongol weapons. They have a Ming princess with them, Furong, who secretly asks Choi-Jung to rescue her.
Choi-Jung wants to be discreet so as to not start a fight with the Mongols and the local Chinese, but Yeo-sol comes along with the corpse of his former master, which greatly upsets one of the Central Asian men. The guy spits on the corpse so Yeo-sol decapitates him with a spear that he had pretty much just acquired. He ends up killing four more Central Asians before the Mongols capture him.
Choi-Jung quietly prevents the other Koreans from intervening. Later on, though, he reveals his decision to rescue the princess and bring her to Nanjing. This will redeem them in the eyes of the Ming and they can return to Korea as heroes instead of losers. They ambush the Mongols, killing almost all of them, and rescue the princess, along with Yeo-sol and a woman presumed to be a prostitute. Unfortunately for them, a larger group of Mongols, led by General Rambulwha, are coming after them, determined to get the princess back.
My description of the plot may make it sound like some great super fun adventure with swords and sandals, but hold on. All is not fun and games. To be sure, there is some fun, along with plenty of action and fighting. It is not pretty, though. Some of it is pretty ugly, and a lot of it is chaotic and confusing. I am not sure if I would call it a flaw in the filming, but I often had little idea what was going on during the fight scenes. Then again, maybe it reflects the chaos surrounding the characters. And, ultimately, I find the characters in this movie more interesting than the fighting.
It would be simple to divide the characters into the good Koreans and the bad Mongols, but that would also be misleading. Indeed, what makes me like this movie so much is the more nuanced and complicated take on the two groups. The Mongols are not good by any means, but they are far from mustache-twirlers. They have recently lost a nation after ruling it for less than a hundred years. Proud warriors, they are stinging from the defeat and are trying to reassert themselves in the north, but the outlook seems bleak, as if they know that they are on the losing side of history. General Rambulwha had made a vow to Mongol ruler Cookoo (who may have been based on a real-life Mongol general) to rescue Cookoo’s sister. It is implied that the Ming have his sister for some reason and Rambulwha is trying to rescue her by using Princess Furong as a bargaining chip. This small piece of information gives their hunt for the princess both an air of desperation and fatalism. They don’t want to do this; this will not restore the lost glory and is rather unseemly. This is almost like their one job before they retire for good and fade into obscurity.
Also, it is important to remember that the Koreans attacked first. Yeah, the Mongols killed the Chinese troops, but they mostly left the Korean alive…I mean, left them to their deaths, but mostly alive. But it was Yeo-sol who killed the five Central Asians before getting captured (and deliberately allowed to live due to his skill with the spear), and then the other Koreans attacked the rest of the Mongols in order to rescue the princess. This is not to downplay the brutality of the Mongols. They go after the Koreans with the intent to kill and have little problem killing anyone whom they deem liabilities or annoyances. There is one scene about an hour in that would normally confirm their villainy. I won’t spoil what it is, but it kind of forces the Koreans to change their plans in more ways than one.
The Koreans are not shown to necessarily be much better, with some of them willing to allow the Mongols to keep doing what they have been doing in order to save themselves. The Koreans are a rather fractured group. After the death of both envoys, General Choi-Jung officially has authority over the others, but he does not have their loyalty. He has his group of regular soldiers, but the lower class soldiers follow an older Sergeant named Dae-Jung. In addition, there are a few men who are not even fighters, including a Korean monk whom they had met at the trading post. And then there is Yeo-sol, whose freedom Choi-Jung denies and whose rescue was not his idea. Indeed Choi-Jung comes across as a jerk a lot of the time, and it gradually starts to seem as if the lower-class soldiers will pressure the wiser and more laid-back Dae-Jung to mount a mutiny. Yeo-sol is almost always butting heads with Choi-Jung. Princess Furong may be spoiled, but she is determined to keep the group from tearing itself apart.
At some point in the movie, almost all of the characters either make grave errors or reveal a less-than-noble side of themselves. Some do this more than others. Maintaining cohesion becomes more and more difficult, however, as the Mongols draw closer and continue to cut off avenues for escape.
Cold practicality, duty, selfishness, class structure, injustice, hopelessness, and honor all come into play as the Korean characters frequently butt heads. This is not just bickering among a ragtag group; there is hostility and the potential for murder from within. There is more than one point in the movie when certain lower-class characters start to openly talk about giving the Princess Furong back to the Mongols. This is not just a thoughtless burst of frustration, but a growing sense that her presence is the cause of all of their troubles since they got exiled on her father’s orders. All of her supposed Imperial powers and Imperial promises of future rewards mean absolutely nothing when compared to the immediate threat of a Mongol onslaught. There are times when even Princess Furong herself starts to wonder whether her life is worth all of the carnage that this attempted rescue has caused, though it is sometimes unclear whether she is serious or bluffing for the sake of courtesy.
General Choi-Jung tries to put an end to such dark thoughts, but the people on the lower rungs of society grow more angry at the situation that he had put them in. They are less concerned than he is about their reputation or their social standing back home (side note: the Goryeo Dynasty had already been in chaos at this time and ultimately would fall to General Yi Seong-gye’s Joseon Dynasty 17 years after the events of this movie) or the political situation in China or relations between the two countries (they would eventually improve) or the well-being of this Princess who doesn’t even rule them. They will never see this reward promised to Choi-Jung. This mission means little for them, especially since their real mission of accompanying the envoys had failed miserably and the men whom they were supposed to protect had died. Most of them simply want to return to Korea alive, even if there is very little if anything there for them anymore. Sometimes, it is a wonder why certain characters do not just run off on their own, though it may be an unstated assumption that they will die sooner that way.
A little over ninety minutes in, there is a sense that the movie is reaching its final act and will wrap up in another twenty or thirty minutes. NOPE. This movie goes on for another hour as the situation worsens and many of our main characters threaten to indulge in their worst impulses before finally FINALLY starting to pull themselves together. This is, in my opinion, when the movie turns from good to great. Since there is almost no major speechifying in this movie, it is not specifically stated what turns it all around, but one might be able to guess.
These are not nice people; the principled ones get everyone in trouble and the practical ones might just let everyone else die. Yet, perhaps it is this push and pull between the characters that ultimately keeps them all in check…for the most part. And that is what keeps them from falling into the excesses of casual brutality that the Mongols do.
This is quite an ensemble piece, with many characters getting their own personalities and arcs. Three characters, however, seem to have prominence, at least according to the DVD cover. Princess Furong is the MacGuffin at the center of this story. Without her, the Koreans are just wandering towards the ferry town. The two main Korean characters are General Choi-Jung and “freed” slave Yeo-sol. Choi-Jung acts as the leader (or tries to) and provides the overall plan for the group while Yeo-sol tends to shake things up with violent acts. While Yeo-sol is not the only one to challenge Choi-Jung’s orders, he is the most aggressive about it, as he is not part of the military structure. The two of them clash over his claim to freedom, with Choi-Jung considering the envoy to be out of his mind when he declared it. There is an unstated sense of a love triangle with the three characters, though it is unlikely that Princess Furong could marry either of them. Princess Furong does seem to have a slight crush on Yeo-sol, given that he played a personal part in her rescue. He refuses to cater to her whims and is almost never outwardly nice towards her, but that does not really matter to her. One could interpret this love triangle of driving the story forward, affecting Choi-Jung’s plans, keeping Yeo-sol from just running away, and causing the two to always be at each others’ throats. One could also completely dismiss this subplot, since it is almost never really on the surface except for some looks here and there. Then again, Yeo-sol does not have a single line of dialog for the first forty minutes and does not speak Chinese anyways. I would go somewhere in the middle: it is there and it does affect the story, but it is not an overriding factor.
One thing that I found kind of relieving was the copious use of the Chinese language in this Korean movie. This may seem like a small thing, but back in 2008 or so, I watched a Korean historical television drama which included Chinese people who spoke Korean not just to Koreans, but to each other. That annoyed me to no end. American entertainment has sometimes succumbs to this nonsense, though I think that it is getting better, maybe thanks to Lost. But having the Chinese characters speak in Korean to each other made absolutely no sense, especially since one of them did not like Koreans and China was the dominant culture. In any case, this movie actually has Chinese actors playing the Chinese characters, with Zhang Ziyi as the princess. Fresh off her stint in Rush Hour 2. Additionally, it is the Korean characters who speak Chinese, not the other way around. There is an interpreter in the diplomatic mission and the monk speaks Chinese as well, but a few of the military commanders speak Chinese as well. I am not exactly sure why they really needed an interpreter in the first place except as a formality, unless he was particularly fluent. Do they speak Chinese well? Uh…Well…they speak it better than Yeo-sol and the other commoners do. There is only a couple of instances where the language barrier is an issue, but I imagine that the characters get the general idea of what the other person was saying. It may seem a bit strange, though, to have the Mongol characters speak Chinese as well, since their maintaining their Mongol language was one of the myriad reasons why the Yuan lasted less than a hundred years. On the other hand, I am not sure that the Mandarin language as we know it existed back then either, so it doesn’t really matter. Really, I am just grateful that they are not all speaking Korean. And that is all that I had asked for.
If you had not yet caught on, this movie is two hours and thirty-eight minutes long. This is not the longest movie that I have featured here, but it is still quite long. If you do not feel like watching such a long movie, there is version floating around (such as on the DVDs in my library system) that is about twenty-five minutes shorter. Most of the cuts are only a few seconds long, though there are some cuts lasting between a minute and two minutes. Apparently, the UK version is slightly shorter, cutting out the shots where horses fall. Personally, I think that there are things that are lost from cutting that stuff, but it is up to you. The cut version is still well-over two-hours long, though, so you might go all in and watch the uncut version.
Musa takes the classic tale of warriors rescuing a princess and gives it a bit of a dark edge. Maybe not quite as dark as Game of Thrones or anything like that, but it is a fairly bleak look at the limits of power and the prospects of the powerless. These are people fighting for a future that is probably not theirs. Yet, they stay together for better or worse. They stay together not because they want to, but because they have to. And if they can do it, maybe there is hope for us all. Until then, we can watch this excellent movie.
WTF ASIA 130: Lagaan (India: 2000, approx. 223 minutes)
WTF ASIA 131: The Clay Bird (Bangladesh: 2002, approx. 93-98 minutes)
Available on…Facebook (?) as Matir Moina.