War of the Arrows
Details: 122 mins, Korea, Republic of (South Korea),
Synopsis: Set during the second Manchurian invasion of Korea. On his sister’s wedding day, young archer Nam-Yi’s ( Hae-il Park) village is destroyed and his sister Ja-in (Chae-won Moon) kidnapped. With only a day to save Ja-in and avenge his village, Nam-Yi sets out with the bow bequeathed to him by his father. Standing in Nam-Yi’s way is Jyu Shin-Ta ( Seung-yong Ryoo), a fierce warrior and leader of the elite enemy troop.
Epic Korean chase film races to finale.
The ingenuity of the plotting resides in the oppositions it establishes
KOFFIA Korean Film Festival: That title, at least, is no misnomer: you could have watched every archery event in the London Olympics and still not seen half as many shafts as are loosed here, in the course of 121 mostly breathless minutes. (The Korean title translates to ‘Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon.’) Yet with the decision to subordinate characterisation to action, condensing this narrative to a succession of set-pieces—essentially, face-offs between various configurations of his cast—writer-director Kim Han-min manages to honour the conventions of both the historical epic and the modern-day action flick, in a way only John Woo (with the admittedly superior Red Cliff) has managed before.
That said, the set-up is unpromising: in seventeenth-century Korea, a new king has seized the throne, and the nobles of the former regime are being rounded up as traitors. One of these, a renowned archer, entrusts his daughter Ja-in to the care of her brother Nam-i—along with his bow—shortly before being killed himself. The pair are taken in by the family of a military official, whose son Seo-gun, 13 years later, requests Ja-in’s hand in marriage; slightly reluctantly, she consents. But their wedding day is disturbed by nothing less than the Second Manchu Invasion of Korea.
By now we’re over half-an-hour in, and there’s been little to distinguish this from any period-set Korean TV drama. Yet with the arrival of the Manchu forces, the film snaps abruptly into focus—perhaps because, by then, enough backstory has been laid out to allow the story finally to what become what it’s meant to be: a simple chase flick, albeit one of extraordinary pace and single-mindedness. Ja-in is seized, along with thousands of her countrymen, and marched across the border to a life of slavery in Manchuria; Nam-i, who evaded the round-up, sets out to get her back. Meanwhile, within the camp, Seo-gun is planning his own escape . . .
The ingenuity of the plotting resides in the oppositions it establishes. Ja-in has two protectors—her brother, and her husband-to-be—and two adversaries: the rather louche Manchurian prince who comes to covet her, and the general who oversees the transport of the prisoners. And while each of these characters’ actions serve to propel the narrative (Ja-in is no shrinking violet herself), except for a single scene—at the Manchu camp—they’re never in the same place at the same moment.
Rather, the action fragments into smaller and separate confrontations, until the final 40 minutes, which plays out as an extended cat-and-mouse game between Nam-i and the General (the astonishingly versatile character-actor Ryu Seung-ryong), who pursues him with a tenacity that would put The Terminator to shame.
The story sets up a few possibilities (like Ja-in’s own, innate talent with a bow) that fail to pay off as powerfully as they might. And, in the early stage, at least, a number of the action sequences seem overly indebted to the example of Michael Bay: a succession of rapid, at times almost subliminal edits (I counted nine in one five-second sequence), accompanied by lurching handheld camera, that ironically work against the tension, denying the viewer a clear sense of exactly the threat these characters are facing—or even where they are, physically, in relation to each other. But as the extraneous elements (and characters) fall away, and the narrative settles into a battle of wits between hunter and hunted, the editing finds its rhythm—aided in no small part by Kim Tae-seong’s mostly percussive score. The final act is consistently gripping, and more than a little exhausting.
Were it not for the occasional flashes of nationalism on display (the prisoners’ rebellion against their captors might as well be accompanied by the strains of ‘Arirang’), the film would be entirely devoid of the politics that have disfigured a number of recent Eastern (and Russian) blockbusters. For the most part, its focus is confined strictly to the physical realm: questions of distance, velocity, geography. The result is the best chase flick since Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad and the Weird (2008), and one of the standout Asian titles of the past 12 months.
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