War Of The Arrows
Directors: Kim Han-min
Cast: Park Hae-il, Ryu Seung-ryong and Moon Chae-won
Distributor: Cine Asia
Release date: 7th May 2012
What is it with archery this year? We have already had The Hunger Games and Hawkeye in Avengers Assemble, but this South Korean historical thriller must now be the cinematic gold standard for arrow-based based action in 2012.
Set in the 17th century, the film begins with Nam-yi and Ja-in, the adolescent son and younger daughter of a disgraced nobleman, escaping the violent destruction of their household. They find safety and are raised by Min-soon the best friend of their father and another noble lord. 13 years later, Ja-in has grown into an attractive young woman whilst Nam-yi has become a surly drunken layabout (albeit one with impressive archery skills). Against her brother’s wishes Ja-in is to be wed to Min-soon’s son Seo-goon (willingly I should add). On the day of the wedding Nam-yi decides to leave the household as, frankly, he is a bit of a drama queen.
Unfortunately for everyone the day of the wedding coincides with the second invasion of Korea by Manchuria. The Manchurians are ruthless warlords, they quickly invade Min-soon’s community, kill, pillage and enslave those left alive (including Nan-yi and Seo-goon). The captured Koreans are taken across the river into China. Due to a treaty with Korea’s weak ruler, any who escape and return home are branded traitors. Still free, Nam-yi sets out to rescue his sister tracking the captured villagers and waging a one-man war against the Manchurians.
Initially War Of The Arrows looks like it will be a typical Asian historical action movie. There is a young and handsome hero, the Koreans are noble, the Manchurians incredibly evil (watch out for a quick bit of offhand barbarism involving a well). There is perhaps a little bit too much historical background to get one’s head around. In the early stages things can be a little confusing if you aren’t paying attention. It’s all necessary characterisation and set up for the following story arc, but it isn’t in any way exceptional.
However once the invasion happens the film kicks into gear, and becomes a taut, suspenseful and very exciting thriller. This isn’t really a martial arts film, the focus is very firmly on archery (with some swordplay) and the bow and arrow combat often has the flavour of prime Hong Kong heroic bloodshed. This isn’t to say it is full of people leaping through the air in slow motion with doves in the background firing two bows at once. Director Han-min Kim does use slow motion and arrow P.O.V. shots extensively, but he does so in a way that heightens the emotional impact of the action scenes, rather than just because it looks cool.
This being a Korean film, the story progresses in a way that is not predictable. The second act takes in a large number of characters, and follows the story of the abducted Koreans and their fates. It’s good stuff, not done on an overly bombastic scale, but epic and exciting. However it is the film’s third act that moves it from solid to terrific. The action moves the action from grasslands and plains into mountain forests. The focus pulls in on Nam-yi and a guerrilla battle he wages with some particularly ruthless Manchurian forces bent on killing him at any cost. For western viewers there will be echoes of First Blood, Deliverance and The Naked Spur here. The action also changes style, the archery duels become deadly sniper battles that may remind you of the best bits of Enemy At The Gates. The shocking reality of the effect of a steel arrowhead ripping through flesh is very well evoked.
This is a handsome looking film making great use of landscape. For all the flash of its action scenes it pays due attention to geography, and manages to balance what looks exciting on-screen with a sense of reality, so the scenes of both bow and sword action are convincing rather than abstract. Performances are good all round, but particularly from Park Hae-il (The Host) as the hero Nam-yi, and Ryoo Seung-Ryong as his fearsome Manchurian nemesis in the later stages of the film. War Of The Arrows may actually appeal more to fans of the western than martial arts films. Either way it is lamentable that a film this good should go straight to DVD.
Animal lovers beware, the film has received a tiny BBFC cut due to a dangerous horse trip.
Rating: 4 stars
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