“War of the Arrows” (also known as “Arrow, the Ultimate Weapon”) is a period set Korean blockbuster revolving around battling archers and the 17th century second Manchu invasion of Korea. The film was directed by Kim Han Min, previously responsible for the offbeat mystery “Paradise Murdered”, and attempts to offer something a little different to the usual historical epics by notching up the tension and aiming for more of a focus on action. The film was a massive success at the box office, emerging as the biggest domestic hit of last year, and also brought home a slew of accolades, with Park Hae Il (“The Host”) winning Best Actor at the Daejong and Blue Dragon Film Awards, Moon Chae Won (“The Princess’ Man”) winning Best New Actress and Ryu Seung Ryong (“The Front Line”) claiming Best Supporting Actor.
The film kicks off in the early 17th century with a young boy called Nam Yi and his sister Ja In fleeing for their lives when their father is accused of being a traitor and killed. Leaping forward some years to 1636, the two have been raised by a friend of the family, Nam Yi (Park Hae Il) grown to be a hunter and skilled archer, highly protective of Ja In. Unfortunately, as the second Manchurian invasion of Korea begins, on her the eve of her wedding to her childhood sweetheart (Kim Moo Yeol, “Romantic Heaven”) their village is massacred by the evil Prince Dorgon (Park Ki Woong, “My Tutor Friend 2”), and she and many of the other inhabitants are captured as slaves. Ignoring the law that bans citizens from crossing border into enemy territory, Nam Yi heads off to rescue her, pursued by Dorgon’s head archer (Ryu Seung Ryong) and his team of crack bowmen.
It doesn’t take long to realise that “War of the Arrows” is an action film first and a historical drama a very far second, Kim Han Min making this clear from the heart pounding opening, the young children being chased by vicious dogs before being saved at the last second by a hail of arrows. After the initial first act exposition, the film is basically a series of chase sequences through a primal, rugged landscape, with very little in the way of filler material. The thrills are pretty much non stop, and on this score it’s easy enough to see why it has been compared to Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”, with some fairly similar setups and the same sense of breathless pacing.
The film is however very much its own beast, with Kim having clearly put a great deal of thought into its depiction and use of arrows as a primary weapon. As well as making for some excellent scenes of sniping, the film has a very effective use of sound in this respect, the whistling of arrows and the taut pulling back of bows helping to really bring things to life. Kim’s direction is gritty rather than the usual period costume gloss, with some well judged shaky camera work making the pursuit even more frenetic. The many set pieces are all impressively staged and make good use of the landscape as an obstacle course of sorts, with Nam Yi having to navigate his way through all manner of natural barriers, resulting in one particularly impressive scene involving the crossing of a gorge under arrow fire. There’s a definite hard edge throughout, and the film is frequently violent and bloody, emphasising the deadliness of the bow as a weapon and again underlining Kim’s determination to produce a work of intensity and realism.
Crucially, though simple, the narrative is effective and shows a respectable amount of attention to historical detail without becoming too dry. This pleasing sense of economy is also true of the characters, who despite being to a large extent defined by their actions are all interesting and engaging, the ongoing battle between the archers being a cat and mouse struggle that’s as much psychological as it is physical. This is in part thanks to some effective acting across the board, especially from Park Hae Il and Ryu Seung Ryong, who both do an excellent job without having much dialogue. Kim’s stripped down approach also brings with it the not inconsiderable benefit of eschewing the usual melodrama that often blights such films, ensuring that the fast paced excitement is never dragged down by needless forced tears and emoting.
“War of the Arrows” definitely stands out from the overcrowded playing field of Korean period films, and is one of the very few which works on a number of levels. A well made, tense and gripping thriller, it’s a film which deserves its success and should be enjoyed even by those fed up with the genre.
Han-min Kim (director) / Han-min Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Hae-il Park … Nam-Yi
Seung-yong Ryoo … Jyu Shin-Ta
Moon Chae-Won … Ja-In
Mu-Yeol Kim … Seo-Goon
Han-wi Lee … Gap-Yong