War of the Arrows opens with a chase. Armed men bear down upon a teenager dragging a little girl who stumbles and falls. Before they are brought down, their pursuers are taken down by their father. Given that moment of relief, they are ordered to flee before seeing their father cut down by the attacking forces. Now orphans, they find themselves at a friend of their father’s where they are fostered.
Such a tragic opening lends itself to a revenge tale and yet when the film cuts to years later, and we see an adult Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) still running, we are introduced to a man who is a competent archer but also a comic figure embittered by his adolescent experience and living on the fringe of polite society whilst his sister is about to marry their foster brother.
Once again, the film destroys Nam-yi’s world when the Manchus arrive to invade the town he has come to call home, kill his foster parents and kidnap the town’s remaining populace to be force-marched into Manchuria. Left for dead, thus begins Nam-yi’s quest to rescue his sister.
This first half-hour of the film sets the context for the action to follow and establishes some characterisation and motivation for Nam-yi’s relentless pursuit. As he fades into the background of rumour whilst he haunts and hunts the Manchus, we slowly get a sense of his antagonists in Jyu Shin-ta (Ryoo Seung-ryong) and his unit of elite soldiers and their dangerous capability as they slowly pick up the scent of Nam-yi’s silent presence.
And whilst all this setup has both its moments and some awkwardness — with themes of nationality, family, nobility and gender relations sprinkled through the characters — it’s pure setup for when the action comes to a head and the film truly shines, as the film focuses upon Nam-yi and his attempts to evade his deadly pursuers. The action progresses in such a tense and exciting manner that you quickly lose sight of the film’s beginnings unless they are blatantly pointed to. Whilst I’m still not wholly convinced of Nam-yi’s secret technique nor the one obvious CGI moment, director Kim Han-min still checks the possible excesses that are part and parcel of this kind of action-adventure film and delivers some convincing action.
The other notable character is Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) as Nam-yi’s sister and general film MacGuffin. There are hints of her being a real presence within the film but her development seems relegated to echoes of her flashbacks’ counterpart’s performance. In contrast, her husband Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol) acts as a counterpoint to Nam-yi’s masculinity: his martial prowess can’t match Nam-yi’s capabilities, but he still rises to the occasion as a Confucian noble. Both have a bit more characterisation than the rest of Shin-ta’s unit, who have the dimensionality based around their fighting skills and role within the unit, but only barely register otherwise.
It’s been a number of years since the cinema-going audience first saw Legolas rip up a battlefield with his superhuman prowess with the bow. Otherwise, films centered upon master archers tend to be about guerrilla actions, until maybe the final confrontation when the swords come out. If there is action, it is brief and intense but mostly tension-filled moments waiting for that perfect shot to line up. Fortunately War of the Arrows doesn’t follow these tropes dogmatically and, at its best, is the story of a hunted man and how he (is it a spoiler since he is the hero?) defeats his hunters. When the action ramps up, it becomes a chase film and the story of one man against many, a man who prevails because he is able to do something his opponents did not think possible. It has its clunky moments in creating the context upon which the action is situated but the payoff, once the action fires up, goes straight to the heart.
War of the Arrows is screening at KOFFIA 2012 (late August through September) in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane — see the festival website for full details.