“The hand that supports the bow should be strong like the great mountain, the hand that draws the bow should be fast like a tiger”
South Korea’s 'War Of The Arrows' is a refreshing change from the typical historical dramas’ lack of realism and was unfortunately overlooked when it came out last year. The film is set during the Second Manchu invasion of 1636, which brought about Korea’s submission to the Manchu Quing Empire for the following 200 years.
The film begins in 1623 when Korea’s King Gwanghaegun’s attempts of maintaining the country’s neutrality between the Manchus and the Ming dynasty have angered anti-Manchu politicians and soldiers. They stage a coup and execute the king’s supporters.
The film’s opening scene shows the harrowing near-miss escape of teenage Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il) and his younger sister Ja-In (Moon Chae-won) from their home where their father, a supporter of the ex-king, is brutally murdered by soldiers. The two siblings witness his death and are left scarred – Nam-Yi is left feeling guilty for being overwhelmed with fear and Ja-In is left bitter for not getting a chance to fight.
13 years pass and Nam-Yi and Ja-In have been living in the household of a friend of their deceased father and have been labeled ‘traitors’ by the country’s ruling class for their association with the deposed king. Nam-Yi’s guilt has turned him into the 1600s equivalent of a drunken party animal, although he is an excellent hunter with the bow his father left him.
Meanwhile Ja-In is about to get married which is abruptly interrupted by the Manchu invasion and she, along with an estimated half a million Koreans, are taken prisoners to the Manchu realm. Nam-Yi escapes the initial invasion because he chooses to go hunting instead of attend his sister’s wedding. He vows to track her down and bring her back to Korea.
The film flows incredibly well and from the beginning grips the audience’s attention with its action and character development of the two siblings. There is some Olympic-winning archery and sword fighting throughout the second half of the film and Nam-Yi’s technique of giving his red-feathered arrows an angle to their flight is a snazzy special effect. Though the violence is overwhelming at times, it is never displayed to provide the film with “epic” status like in so many Hollywood films.
The violence is central to the story’s historical accuracy and, more importantly, it is central to the identity of the sibling protagonists who have been haunted by the bloody execution of their father from a young age. Indeed, it is only once the Manchurians invade and bring war to Korea that Nam-Yi and Ja-In’s characters develop more fully and become much more interesting, reminiscent of the character development of another South Korean film 'The Host'.
The film’s historical authenticity and its many scenes of raw emotional breakdowns is similar to Russia’s lavish 2007 production of 'Mongol', but 'War Of The Arrows' maintains the action and the interest of the viewer much more effectively due to the runtime of just under 2 hours.
Though there are plenty of political allegories to be taken from 'War Of The Arrows', including ideas about Korean re-unification, patriotism and political freedoms, it is at its core a story about redemption and overcoming obstacles with the love of family. 'War Of The Arrows' has just been released on dvd in the UK and is definitely worthy of revisiting, or in the case of most British viewers to be experienced for the first time.
- Original Korean language with English subtitles
- Trailer Gallery
- Behind The Scenes
- Making of
- Cine Asia Exclusive Featurette
'War Of The Arrows' is out now on DVD/Blu-ray through Cine-Asia, and is available to purchase from Amazon.co.uk.