‘War of the Arrows’ Review

The formidable Jyu Shin-Ta riding into battle

* Minor spoilers ahead *

Nam-Yi and his little sister Ja-In run through the streets of their hometown, tightly clutching one another’s hand as they are chased by a stream of armed soldiers and vicious dogs. Their father has been branded a traitor and the night air is full of shouts baying for his blood. Suddenly Ja-In trips and falls, and as Nam-Yi turns he sees his sister reach out for him in slow motion and scream his name. ‘That’s it,’ you think, ready to shield your eyes as a hound catches up – ‘she’s a goner. I can’t watch that cute little girl getting mauled.’

Fortunately, an arrow flies out of nowhere and kills the dog mid-leap. The children’s father reveals himself as the archer and hurriedly tells them to flee, entrusting his precious bow to his son. After several painstaking moments the siblings rush on ahead, pausing to look back from a nearby vantage point. As their father struggles to fend off the soldiers, Ja-In screams that “Daddy needs his bow” and wrestles with her brother for the weapon. Below, their father takes his final stand and is killed right before their eyes.

This almost unbearably tense sequence of events is the opening of Han-min Kim‘s latest film, ‘War of the Arrows‘ (also known as ‘Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon‘). The superb performances from child stars Da-wit Lee and Min-seo Jeon instantly immerse you in their dark world, setting you up for what promises to be a very gritty retelling of the second Manchu invasion of Korea.

After its brief preface, the film fast-forwards several years to reveal a fully-grown Nam-Yi (Hae-il Park) and Ja-In (Moon Chae-Won), who have grown up in the village they fled to after their father’s murder. Ja-In is to marry her childhood sweetheart, the loveable Seo-Goon (Mu-Yeol Kim), but on their wedding day the village is invaded by Manchurian soldiers. After the horrific massacre led by Prince Dorgon (Gi-woong Park), the surviving villagers are captured and dragged away as slaves, including the newly-weds. This is where the main body of the film begins; Nam-Yi takes up his inherited bow and vows to rescue his sister from the enemy’s clutches.

Ja-In is also skilled with a bow

What follows is a thrilling battle of wit and skill, predominantly between Nam-Yi and Jyu Shin-Ta (Seung-yong Ryoo), Prince Dorgon‘s right hand man. There are some truly remarkable fight scenes, in particular those which showcase Nam-Yi‘s penchant for archery, and though the formula is recycled (taut bow for dramatic tension, following the whistling arrow on its course and seeing it pierce a head or a neck), the creativity that comes with each kill stops it from becoming boring. This is historical action at its best: brutal, artistic and steeped in history.

However, the film barely extends beyond such action and its second half is basically one long chase scene. While still exciting, one can’t help but feel there is a definite imbalance here. A beneficial solution would be to shave off some minutes from the extensive game of cat-and-mouse between Nam-Yi and the Manchurians, and to lend more time to the characters’ development. There are some wonderful moments towards the start, such as Nam-Yi getting drunk and throwing up all over Seo-Goon, or getting into a comical scrap with his friends Gang-du and Gap-Yong (Gu-taek Kim and Han-wi Lee respectively), and it is a shame that these relationships aren’t explored in greater depth. 

Nevertheless, this recent release is an electrifying action film and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema.

War of the Arrows‘ launched this year’s London Korean Film Festival; read our previous article and find out more here

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