War of the Arrows (South Korea, 2011) [NYAFF 2012]

It’s about time I threw my hat into the ring and chimed in on War of the Arrows, the top-grossing Korean film of 2011, which has met with positive reactions from all over the globe. Early in 2011, if you were familiar with the big films that were scheduled to come out throughout the year in Korea, you could be forgiven for expecting Sector 7 and The Front Line to dominate the charts during the summer months. In the end, the former was a cataclysmic failure, likely because it was a terrible film, and the latter fell below expectations.  It was a decent film, but perhaps a little thin to play well given its subject matter. One film you may not have noticed, I know I didn’t, was War of the Arrows, a straightforward period action film with mid-level stars and no pretense about it.

The first thing that came to mind as I considered War of the Arrows was Apocalypto (2006), a film that may not have been to everyone’s taste but nevertheless displayed a similar unstoppable drive as it followed a protagonist suddenly torn from his tight-knit society and forced to go on the run, defending himself every step of the way. I, for one, admired Mel Gibson’s last film as, unlike his previous The Passion of the Christ (2004), there didn’t seem to be much subtext lurking beneath the simple plot. Instead, he concocted a breathless adventure film charged with the urgency of modern day.

Kim Han-min has done the exact same thing as he has crafted a consistently engaging action film that follows a simple premise concisely and effectively towards its conclusion. No high-concept thrills, 3D or IMAX here, just solid entertainment that never fails to deliver on its promise.

Nam-ji and his sister Ja-in, orphaned after the murder of their father, a talented archer and dissenter, live in a village in the charge of a trusted friend of their father’s. On the day that Ja-in weds his son Seo-goon, the village is brutally attacked by Manchurian soldiers and they are both taken hostage. Nam-ji, now a talented bowman in his own right, chases after the main army to free his sister, while an unrelenting battalion of elite warriors also attempt to track him down.

The film wastes no time putting itself into high gear as we are immediately thrown into an action scene and director Han quickly shows us that this will not be your typical period potboiler. What drives the film is speed and power and when the first arrow crosses the screen to save our young protagonists from a snarling dog, it does so discreetly.  However, its effect is one of tremendous might as it carries off the deadly animal with it as it exits the frame. The elite fighters, led by the menacing Jyu Sinta (Ryoo Seung-young, excellent as always), are not your average antagonists, they are dynamos of power, alacrity and swift, cold rationale. Their roars and fearlessness quicken the pulse. They plough forward even after getting hit; nothing can keep them down.

Nam-ji must be quick and crafty as he is ill-afforded any time to do anything else. As limited the role is, Park Hae-il incarnates him with an intensity and lightness of foot which effortlessly pulls us into his predicament. While not a weighty, dramatic role, Park’s performance has been justly praised and even been recognized with a bevy of industry awards at the 48th Daejong and 32nd Blue Dragon awards, among others.

The only real problems with the film are a misjudged encounter with a jungle animal and a brief climax that doesn’t pack the punch it thinks it does. These minor gripes aside, War of the Arrows remains one of the most successful summer films of 2011, harnessing a propulsive momentum that brings a familiar but clear story to vivid reality. A lean action film that knows where to focus its attention, Kim Han-min demonstrates that perhaps there is life in the Korean blockbuster after all.

Click here for a chance to win tickets to the New York Asian Film Festival screening of War of the Arrows.

Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.