“Never seen an archer like that before…”
Directed by: Han-min Kim
Written by: Han-min Kim
Starring: Hae-il Park, Ryu Seung-Ryong, Mu-Yeol Kim
It isn’t a “war of the arrows” so much as a war of one man vs. the entire Manchu army. Or perhaps, Korean archer Nam-Yi is battling with a traumatic experience from his past. Perhaps it’s an internal struggle of guilt? Perhaps he’s actually fighting his own nation’s stubborn aversion toward diplomatic relations with its regional neighbors. In any case, Han-min Kim’s War of the Arrows doesn’t beg for deeper thought or analysis with its fast-paced action, flying arrows, and small, exciting turns in the plot. Had the film invested a little more time in the characters and the film’s historical context, however, it may have hit the mark.
Having lost their father to the hands of Korea’s unmerciful law enforcers, Nam-Yi (Park) and his sister Ja-In (Moon) grow up in the home of a military official and his son. From the traumatic experience of seeing his father sentenced to death for promoting diplomacy with foreign countries, Nam-Yi develops an overprotective attitude towards his younger sister and a cynical view of heroism. But when Ja-In and her husband-to-be (you guessed it, the military official’s son) are kidnapped mid-wedding in a surprise attack by invading Manchu soldiers, Nam-Yi’s overprotectiveness goes into overdrive. With expert skills in archery, Nam-Yi stalks down his sister’s captors in a wild goose chase through the Korean wilderness.
There’s no denying that Han-min Kim is a talented writer-director for action. Once Kim releases the tension of the incoming invasion, action unfurls without a pause for breath. Kim’s navigation of the Korean forest landscape and direction of the ensuing arrow-fueled violence is attention-grabbing and exciting enough for us to stick it out through to the end. Kim’s expertise in action direction may fly high, but when it comes to pulling back bow of tension and character development before the action takes off, Kim doesn’t give us the time to get to know characters that are about to get in the thick of action. If Kim had fleshed out Nam-Yi as a likable character, and invested more time in building his relationship with his sister, the compelling quality of the story would have shot through the roof. Instead, War of Arrows is happy to assume that audiences will tap into the universal understanding that familial ties are strong, that defending your country is important, and bravery comes from jumping across cliffs, hiding behind trees, and taking on an army of Manchu guys. War of Arrows may be good (not great) entertainment, but it’s not the most satisfying story to have crossed Korean cinema’s collection of action flicks.