Shooting an arrow is not as simple as it looks. Anyone can shoot an arrow after the basic lesson, but hitting right in the target requires a lot more. Besides having a good bow, arrows, and skills, the archer also has to consider the external factors such as the direction of the wind while looking for the best timing to shoot an arrow.
I know nearly nothing about archery, but I can say South Korean action/period drama “War of the Arrows” shows us that the archery is as delicate as the marksmanship we frequently come across in modern action movies. While it may be not as powerful as the subtitle exaggerated, a bow and arrows can be strong weapon in the hands of the skilled professionals, and the movie draws lots of excitement from the relentless chases and accompanying constant battles of wits between two stubborn main characters. They are good matches to each other as the archers, and they are equally clever enough to be able to outwit each other, so it eventually boils down to the duel on the wide field between them. Imagine the duels in the western movies and substitute the gun with a bow and an arrow, and you will get the idea.
Its simple story is unfolded in Korea of the 17th century, the mid-period of the Chosun Dynasty. In 1623, Kwanghaegun was dethroned by the Injo revolt and immediately replaced by his cousin King Injo. Young Nam-i’s father, a military officer, was killed being labeled as a traitor, and, as ordered by his father before his death, Nam-i managed to escape with his younger sister at the last minute. They went to their father’s friend living outside the capital, who took a great risk by raising them as the part of his household while hiding their identities.
13 years have passed. Both Nam-i(Park Hae-il) and Ja-in(Moon Chae-won) are now grown-ups. Although still protected well, Nam-i has virtually no future except enjoying the hunt with his servants or polishing his archery skills, for it is impossible for him to enter the government due to his background. Meanwhile, Ja-in is happily going to marry Seo Goon(Kim Moo-yeol), the only son of their protector who has liked her since they were young, and Nam-i is happy for his sister.
However, in the middle of their wedding, the vast army of Qing suddenly invades their town. Unlike King Kwanghae-gun, King Injo made an unwise diplomatic choice of disregarding the rising power of the Qing Dynasty which would soon replace the Ming Dynasty in China. He paid a hefty price for underestimating Qing; he had to personally surrender to the Emperor in legendary humiliation while many of his people were taken to Qing as the prisoners/hostages. Ja-in and her groom are among them, and it is Nam-i’s mission to rescue them from the Qing army and take them back to their country. He is willing to eliminate anyone standing on his way with his bow, but it won’t be easy. While he is mostly alone, there is the elite force led by the Qing general Jyu Sinta(Ryoo Seung-yong), who notices Nam-i’s uncanny talent right from their first encounter and recognizes him as a worthy opponent to him and his men.
The film relatively lags while establishing the characters and their situations during the first half, but, once everything is set and ready, it kicks into high gear to the full speed. You may find the use of shaky cam in period drama distracting, but it is right approach because it is necessary for the characters to move fast and think fast like Jason Bourne for their survival and win. While rarely losing the sense of the direction, the movie is filled with energy to tighten our attention to what is going on the screen. Being real is always important for this kind of action movies, and the director Kim Han-min and his crews do deserve the praise for their accomplishment. You can see the people in the movie are really running in the mountain forests, or, in one gripping scene, jumping over the cliff to reach to the other side across a ravine.
And I was very amused by how the arrows were used in the film. The arrows are more flexible than bullets, so some seemingly impossible trajectories are possible at least in the movie. While I believe the arrows on the screen are CGIs in many cases like the bullets in “Wanted”(2008), these arrows look real and destructive, and they are not shot mindlessly. The characters usually shoot their arrows based on quick calculations and their instincts – that makes the confrontations between them look like a deadly chess game between the expert snipers with rifles.
The characterization is broad, but the performers have strong presence to pull us into the plot. Although it is the national conflict at first, the story ultimately becomes the personal conflict between the characters determined to stop each other with their all hearts and brains, and we become involved in it. Park Hae-il is a believable action movie hero of the 17th century; you can sense he will even descend to the bottom of hell to save his sister and his friend. Moon Chae-won is also good as the bride who is as resourceful as her groom. In the action movies made in these days, the female characters no longer stand back from guys’ actions, and Ja-in does not disappoint us with her quiet but defiant attitude to her enemies.
The villain is always one of the crucial factors determining the success of the action movies, and Ryoo Seung-yong, who was impressive as the leader of North Korean military unit in recent South Korean movie “The Front Line”(2011), gives a forceful performance with his penetrating eyes and steely will behind them. He and other non-Chinese actors are pretty much believable with their Manchurian dialogues at least in my view(Machurian has been almost a dead language since the Qing Dynasty engulfed China and then assimilated itself into the Han Chinese culture, so few will find faults in the movie). I find it interesting how the movie allows them to have some human sides. They are not vicious monsters, and they have an understandable reason for being a lot furious about Nam-i and others who meddle with their business. Though they are quite determined to kill our hero, you may feel a little sorry for them.
“War of the Arrows” has a good tool for its actions – and it has the story to use it for good dramatic effects. While it is not entirely satisfying in story level or technical level(for instance, there is a CGI creature which does not fit well with the realistic actions), but the movie is more entertaining than I expected, and I like its pulsating energy. Unlike bullets, the arrows can be recycled or adapted to the other bow, and, in one case, the character pulls the arrow from his wound and then uses it for his purpose – can you imagine that if they fight with guns?
Sidenote: As some South Korean critic pointed out, there is a major historical error in the movie with Qing prince Dorgon, who is depicted as the character more or less than a petty bad guy. Unlike his fictional counterpart, he lived longer and did lots of thing to solidify the Qing Dynasty as the regent prince. That does not spoil the entertainment, but I think it is not bad to know about such a historical fact before watching the movie.