This relatively unheralded film turned out to be the biggest box office local film of the year in South Korea, beaten only by Tom Cruise and the latest Transformers film in the chart. Perhaps most surprising about its success is that a large portion of the dialogue is spoken in a virtually extinct Manchu language – so the mainstream audience in Seoul were confronted with subtitles as well as several onscreen titles explaining aspects of the history. If this makes War of the Arrows sound like a dry historical document, fear not. This is a lean and sinewy action thriller.
Korea in the Joseon period, 1623. A teenage boy and his young sister flee from Seoul after a coup d’état in which their father is killed as a loyal officer of the ousted ruler. The boy Nam-yi has been given his father’s bow and instructed to look after his sister Ja-in. They are taken in by one of their father’s friends in the mountains. Thirteen years later Ja-in decides that she can’t always live in hiding and decides to marry the son of their protector. Nam-yi doesn’t think much of this idea but is forced to accept her decision and prepares to leave. He is by now a cynical man and we get hints of his archery prowess. It looks like he will become a bitter warrior, a kind of Korean version of a ronin in a Japanese samurai film. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding when he has just left town, Manchu cavalry arrive and swiftly take possession of the area. This is the ‘Second Manchu invasion of Joseon Korea’ in 1636. Half a million Koreans are captured and marched away to Manchuria. Nam-yi is now a fugitive looking for his sister and displaying prodigious archery skills in his battles with the invaders. Eventually he will find himself up against a crack squad of Manchu mounted archers who he must overcome to rescue Nam-yi and her new husband.
A straightforward conventional action picture, this film demonstrates the strength of Korean Cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and overall presentation. Writer-director Kim Han-min previously directed two other genre films, both described as ‘thrillers’ on IMDB. War of the Arrows looks wonderful, the action sequences are exciting and there is a novelty (for me, at least) in the concentration on archery skills. I was very impressed by Park Hae-il as Nam-yi (having previously seen him in The Host). The actor does not resemble the usual action hero but he utilises all his skills to make the character convincing. The following excellent review on Koreanfilm.org says much more about the film from a more informed perspective. I agree with the comment that this is much more like a 1950s Hollywood Western in its focus on the characters and the hunt/chase than a conventional historical drama. I’m also interested in the comments about the choice of subject matter – the humiliating defeat of Korean forces during the Manchu invasion – and how this relates to the more typical choice of narratives that fit the ‘national popular’ categories (i.e. Korean War epics or films where the Japanese are the bad guys). The Koreanfilm.org review praises the film but criticises the ‘submission’ to the use of CGI and under current conventions of the action film. It suggests that more focus on the philosophy of the martial arts being practised in a Kurosawa Akira mode would have been a better bet. I’m not really in a position to comment on CGI but this alternative suggestion is one that I didn’t think of when watching the film, but on reflection it sounds an interesting idea.
I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in action films and East Asian Cinema more generally. Here’s the best trailer I could find (try to ignore the dreadful voiceover):