International audiences of Korean cinema are well aware that South Korea has the potential to match the best Wuxia out there. This has been proven time again with films that display remarkable swordplay action that matches the best Chinese martial arts films and Japanese Jidai Geki films. Director Kim Han-Min tries something different and yet so familiar with the film “War of Arrows” (Choechongp'yongki Hwal). It blends elements of a historical adventure while re-defining the action elements of Korean Wuxia. Boy, does it do it very well.
1623 is the 15th year of King Gwanghaegung’s rule. The king’s loyal servant General Choi Pyung-Ryung has been framed for treason and his house assaulted. His son, Nam-Yi and his daughter, Ji-an barely escape with their lives and they flee to the house of their father’s old friend, Kim. The two siblings live a quiet life under Kim’s protection as they are raised as his own. 13 years have passed and Qing China carries an invasion of Joseon, that will be known as the second Manchu invasion of Korea. On the wedding day of Ji-an (now played by Moon Chae-Won) and Kim’s son (Kim Mu-Yeol), Qing troops led by Jiusinta (Park Gi-Woong) attack, taking the villagers prisoners including Ji-an. After being injured in combat, Nam-yi (Park Hae-Il) returns to find his adoptive father murdered, and Ji-an missing. Now, Nam-yi must rely on stealth, his knowledge of the terrain and his uncanny archery skills to mount a brutal assault to save his sister….
The film’s premise is pretty simple but what makes the film stand out is the way the direction structured the storytelling, and how it manages to bring out the best of the screenplay. I learned to allow the characters tell the story through the emotions being expressed, as the direction allowed them to grow and as a result I developed an attachment to them. It is a simple story of commitment and redemption. There are themes that carry from the casualties of war and how war never seems to give anyone any reward. War causes pain, both in one’s heart and one’s soul; sometimes the brave can seem to be the coward while the coward can be the brave, and director Kim Han-Min manages to properly conceive such a character in Nam-yi.
Nam-yi is a sort of burdened soul as he appears to be overprotective of his sister. Yes, there are some subtle use of humor in the film’s first act, as he appeared to be highly unreasonable. For him, there was something missing with Ji-an’s chosen, as with any father, it seems like no one is good enough for her. There is tension between the two, and the script makes the dialogue and action speak a lot for them. There was a very interesting scene when the brother and sister seemed to compete in shooting an arrow, which later on, speaks more for their style and skill the more the film went on. The supporting characters also serve as credible tools in fleshing out the protagonists and the story's development. I was pleased as to how each one served a purpose in expressing the pains, sacrifice and determination in the war to survive.
Once the set ups of the film are done, the direction goes into overdrive. I really have not seen a Wuxia epic with this much intensity and thrills. “War of the Arrows” is essentially a chase film; the hunter becomes the hunted, and soon we get to wonder just how is the hunted. What separated this from other Wuxia epics, is the manner that it focuses on archery rather than stylized swordplay. The action is kept tight and taut, the direction never loses a beat in generating the needed suspense. I was kept guessing as what would happen next. It goes to a rescue mission which then turns into something that resembles “Apocalypto”. Kim Han-Min kept the shots close and personal and the way he maneuvers the camera angles were just impressive and truly fitting to a battle of wits using archery. The cinematography was fantastic, you could really feel that one was in this period of Joseon; from lavish scenery and elaborate costumes, to gritty action and blood, the film was able to carry them all.
Much of the action focuses on Nam-yi’s skill as an archer. If you’ve seen how the film “Wanted” uses the concept of ’curving bullets’ then you would know exactly what I am talking about. His skill is almost supernatural as he ‘curves’ his arrows and yet, I had no issues buying into this, as the direction was able to define the theories behind such skill. Being outnumbered and nearly exhausted, Nam-yi also uses his knowledge of the terrain, as he does whatever he can to use everything to his advantage. It is the art of guerilla warfare in a manner of speaking. But of course, no hero would be defined without a real nemesis and Nam-yi’s comes in the form of a Manchurian archer. Their rivalry was birthed of losing something in their lives or the fear of such as a loss. Each one of them had considerable skill with a bow, and each of them had a different style. The intensity of the film hits the breaking point as the two duel using their wits, as one tries to be more ruthless than the other.
“War of the Arrows” may be one of the best Korean films I will see this year. It was a blockbuster in Korea in 2011, it won a best actor award for Park Hae-Il and won a best new actress award for Moon Chae-won in the 48th Daejong awards, and is the highest grossing Korean film in 2011; these facts speak a lot for the quality of the film. This is a tale about family, redemption and honor. “War of the Arrows” is a lavish epic and at times, even violent and brutal. I am very pleased that this film had finally hit U.S. shores.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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