War of the Arrows: Busan Film Review

A superior historical epic and action movie from Korean director Kim Han-min.

Korean director/screenwriter Kim Han-min brings archery to new cinematic heights in this period actioner.

War of the Arrowsis one helluva chase movie. For most of its 122-minute running time, the hero is either chasing his sister’s abductors or the villains are chasing him. In between there’s an enemy invasion, running battles, steely confrontations and even a family quarrel. The key though is the movie’s weapon of choice — the bow and arrow. Compared with firearms and knives, archery is a much more cinematic way to slay characters. Director/screenwriter Kim Han-min uses straight action, speeded-up photography and CGI to track arrows on their flight to victims and cause courageous men to blanch as tree bark explodes from near misses. These arrows are the original smart bombs.

Kim’s historical action epic was Korea’s second-highest grossing release this year. The film is certainly exportable to all markets as its fight sequences are intelligently designed for maximum tension and the editing is masterful.

After a prologue 13 years earlier, the story takes place during the 1636 Mongolian invasion of Korea. Nam-Yi (Park Hae il) sets out with a single bow to rescue his sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), who is kidnapped by Manchurian soldiers, along with many villagers, on the day of her wedding to Wan-Han (Yu Seung Ryoung), himself an imperial soldier. Echoing in Nam-Yi’s head are his father’s last words when he commanded the youth to protect his sister at all times and at all costs.

Prior to her kidnapping, Nam-Yi had fallen into drunken despair over the fate of his father, slain as a traitor to the emperor, and the legacy he and his sister bear as a traitor’s heirs. But with her now in jeopardy, he is energized with purpose.

Soon enough the Manchu’s commander knows someone is on their tail. First there are the tale-tell red arrows on quivers found in so many soldiers’ bodies. Then there are the uncanny angles and deadly accuracy of his archery.

The film unfolds in several major sequences, all supremely well staged, shot and cut so suspense builds and builds. In the first one, Nam-Yi barely escapes the attack on the village. Later, he ambushes a group of soldiers to gain information from the last man still alive.

Then Wan-Han inspires a revolt of the enslaved people against their cruel captors with Nam-Yi arriving just in time to help. The two men and their companions track down the king’s party in whose encampment they will find Ja-in. Here they must use strategy and guile to overcome a vastly superior force in numbers.

There’s an extended chase through a forest that includes men shedding armor to jump across a wide ravine only to slam against and cling to slippery cliffs as arrows fly. Then comes a final confrontation on the plains where there is truly no place to hide.

The ingenuity of most of these sequences revolves around archery, at which both the heroes and villains excel. Everyone seeks just the right vantage point against his opponent, a difficult thing in a hilly forest where opportunities are fleeting. Then there’s the contrast between the bigger, heavier Manchu bows versus the lighter, more agile Korean ones.

The film is one cliffhanger after another and in that one instance a literal one. But Kim pulls a few punches in aiding his heroes’ momentary escapes, most memorably when a hungry tiger comes to Nam-Yi’s rescue. A couple of Nam-Yi’s comrades are played too much as buffoons, perhaps for comic relief but they don’t make credible soldiers. Otherwise, the missteps are few.

The characters are on the run from the opening shots so there’s no opportunity for deep-dish acting. Emotions here are primal.

The two male heroes make an interesting contrast with Yu Seung Ryoung gentleman soldier almost a pretty boy while Park Hae il’s super archer is bearded and gruff but capable of showing flashes of boyish fear. Moon Chae-won more than holds her own in this man’s movie as her character stands up to her captors and fights back no matter what.

War of the Arrows is a technical triumph as Kim Tae Seong’s photography blends well with the digital artistry while costumes, décor and locations bring ancient history to life.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, Korean Cinema Today

Production company: Dasepoclub Co. Ltd.

Cast: Park Hae il, Yu Seung Ryoung, Moon Chae-won, Kim Moo Yul

Director/screenwriter: Kim Han-min

Producers: Jang Won Seok, Kim Sung hwan

Director of photography: Kim Tae Seong

Production designer: Jang Chun Seob

Music: Kim Tae Seong

Editors: Kim Chang Ju, Steve Choi

Sales: Lotte Entertainment

No rating, 122 minutes