It’s been a looooong dry spell here at the Litterbox, as Life seems to be conspiring to keep lil’ ol’ me busy lately, but finally I’m back at it, with a look at Korea’s 2011 Martial Arts action epic adventure “War of the Arrows”…. and a special “guest star” appearance by our friend Elpeevio of “Things Fall Apart” to join in the fun.
Oh how exciting, I have never been a “guest star” before, I’ll be doing my best to add to the experience of this review. How about the Catgirl gets us started with a little synopsis of what this one is all about?
Our synopsis goes as follows: “Set in 1636, during the second Manchurian invasion of Chosun Korea, young Nam-Yi’s entire family have been branded as traitors by the Crown, but he also happens to be the best archer in the Joseon Dynasty. Living his life in hiding within the household of his father’s one remaining friend, Nam-Yi’s only desire in life is to keep his sister, Ja-In safe from any harm. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding, the villages of Joseon Korea are attacked by the Qing Dynasty of China. The border village in which Nam-Yi and Ja-In live is directly in the path of invasion and Ja-In gets kidnapped by the elite troop of Qing to be taken back north as a slave. In order to rescue his sister from the raiders, he departs from his demolished village with only the bow that his father had bequeathed upon him before dying. Disrupting his mission to save his sister is Jyu Shin-Ta, a fierce Qing warrior who leads the elite troop. They are relentless in their chase to bring down Nam-Yi, who has but one day to save his sister from slavery. As Nam-Yi finally gets a hold of his sister, Jyu Shin-Ta comes between them and a fierce battle between two of the finest warriors unfolds.”
Crazy lil’ me likes a good swashbuckling Martial Art film almost as much as my Ghost Stories….. It’s probably that “Warrior Princess” deep inside me aching for some heroic action, so naturally when this one slipped onto my radar a while back I just knew I’d have to give it a look see. I mean…. “Rambo” crossed with “Robin Hood” and seasoned with more than a little “Crouching Tiger” meets “Musa the Warrior”…. I can honestly say it’s certainly got this wee Catgirl plenty interested. So then… does it indeed have the goods? Will it live up to the hype and suitably sate my need for extravagantly gorgeous period action and adventure? And…. most importantly of all… will my sweetie like it too, subtitles and all?
I have grown to love the Martial Arts genre too over the last few years, and the Korean take on things is always a little different to that you find in Chinese and Hong Kong films. I think the film initially intrigued me by the use of Bows and Arrows rather than the normal swordplay, and I am a total sucker for Joseon-era stories with the amazing outfits and the strict Confucian society. This really was a massive hit in its homeland, and I was rather surprised to see it got a limited North American Cinema outing. We also have it on DVD and Blu-ray here in England too, which is nice.
So… really only one way to find out what we all thought of it, o’ Gentle Visitors, and that’s to “Read On”…
As with all these sorts of movies, this one gets it’s start years before the real story gets underway. Seems our young hero Nam-yi gets to witness his father Choi Pyeong-ryung, an officer in the court of King Gwanghae, get killed along with his whole clan by the king’s order on the false charge of Treason. Rather than escaping himself, Nam-yi’s dad single-handedly holds off the soldiers to buy his son the precious time to save his little sister Ja-in. The two run into the forest, narrowly surviving a brutal battle with a pack of deadly war dogs dispatched to run them down. Wounded and alone, the two make their way to the household of their dad’s last loyal friend Kim Min-soon. Reluctantly, he takes them in and hides them within his own Clan, knowing that they remain under a threat of execution if they are ever discovered.
Now I actually liked this bit, but I do wonder how easy it is all to follow for the more casual observer. It is a tough call – the native Korean audience will know all about the Joseon era, but for us Westerners I am not sure it really explains how closed off the Korean nation was for centuries, constantly fighting off attacks and invasions from other nations. Of course, we are not the target audience so I guess I will let this one lie.
13 years pass, and Nam-yi (played by Park Hae-il) grows up to be a forester for the Clan. He’s more comfortable out in the solitude of the woods…. where his lack of any real chance to participate in the life that a young nobleman might expect to lead is not such a constant reminder of his almost ghost-like existence…. a man without a future. His sister Ja-in (played by Moon Chae-won) has grown too and became a beauty and found her own life within the Clan less bleak and meaningless…. and she’s caught the eye of Min-soon’s eldest son Seo-goon (played by Kim Mu-yeol). Despite the danger of her true identity, he plans to marry her even over his friend Nam-yi’s objections and his fears that doing so will bring danger to the beloved sister he’s pledged everything to protect and terrible retribution down upon the Min Clan.
So opposed to the marriage is he that on the day of the wedding, Nam-yi stays away…. up in the mountains, the only place he truly feels the master of his own fate. Naturally…. that’s the day that the Manchu Prince Dorgon decides to come raiding this part of Korea looking to seize slaves and booty to enhance his image back home. Yep…. he’s gonna turn out to be a pain alright.
Yep… now we’re getting somewhere. It isn’t long before Nam-yi finds his way to the devastated Clan estate…. and finding only one of his sister’s wedding slippers, grimly takes up his father’s bow and sets out on the trail of bloody vengeance to free her.
Our story then sort of bounces back and forth a bit… between Nam-yi as he follows the raiders…. his sister resisting the brutal treatment she receives at the hands of Prince Dorgon who is determined to break her spirit before making her his plaything…. and the trials and tribulations of Seo-goon and the other prisoners as they are marched North towards the Yalu river and captivity in Manchu China. Here we get acquainted with a fairly stupid law set forth by the Koreans that declares any citizen of Chosun a traitor if they cross that river into China… even if they are taken across unwillingly. To return means execution. No exceptions. How stupid a law is that? At first, my sweetie Carolyn couldn’t believe we were reading the subtitles right on this one. Grrrr…. stupid Korean Emperor. However…. this does make Nam-yi’s pursuit all that much more desperate and dramatic as he races to catch up before the prisoners can reach the river.
It was not just Carolyn who was a bit confused about this. It is mentioned a couple of times – cross the border and you cannot return. I mean really – how would anyone know? It is not as if there are passports and border control is it? And no lines marking where exactly Korea ends all around the country. Of course, dramatically it does up the sense of danger!
And follow them he does…. a one man army whacking pretty much every Manchu warrior he comes across, sparing only those who give him the information he needs to catch his quarry. Eventually, the tough guy commander of the Prince’s forces, General Jyuu Shin-Ta (played by Ryoo Seung-yong) figures out somebody truly bad-ass is making for the Prince’s camp like an unstoppable Minion of Death itself. He figures it’s some kind of military scout or elite assassin…. somebody trying to kill the Prince, so he and his toughest, most capable soldiers break off their raiding and try to cut him off before he can reach the camp and carry out his mission. Here’s where the real fun begins…..
…before we get to the fun though – I really noticed just how much cooler the Manchu Warriors were – fantastic haircuts and outfits. Made our heroes really look quite the rag-tag band.
First our hero reaches the column of prisoners…. just as they are being loaded aboard the boats that will take them into China. One desperate battle latter, he’s inspired the prisoners to rise up in a desperate bid for freedom, killed the Manchu soldiers to the last man, and reunited himself with Seo-goon and his other friends, the two old foresters he worked with back home. But all they are able to tell him of his sister is that it’s too late…. Ja-in has already been taken across the river by Prince Dorgon….
But… does a man already wrongly under threat of execution as a Traitor worry about that stupid law about never crossing the Yalu? Hell no…. Not only that… but Seo-goon won’t give up either, not when he loves Ja-in enough to defy that sentence to make her his wife. Along with his buddies the woodsmen, they decide to make one crazy all-or-nothing attempt to catch Dorgon and save Ja-in or die in the attempt.
Ooooohhh!!! It’s “commando” time. Our heroes catch up to Dorgon…. who’s been torturing Ja-in for days, chaining her outside his tent to let exposure, hunger, and thirst wear her will down. Just when he’s ready to give up trying to break her, ready to simply rape and kill this defiant beauty, our boys sneak into the camp. They free Ja-in…. but are forced to split up…. Seo-goon and the woodsmen taking Ja-in to safety while Nam-yi holds Dorgon hostage to freeze his soldiers in place. Once they’ve escaped… Dorgon figures he’s got Nam-yi right where he wants him, surrounded and easy prey for capture. Silly boy….. Nam-yi sets Dorgon on fire, and as him shocked men scramble to do something about it, he makes his getaway.
This leaves only a charred corpse for General Jyuu to find upon his return…. and he’s not the sort of hard man to just let something like that slide. He and his elite troop take off after Nam-yi in earnest, ready to get some serious payback for the Prince’s life. This is where the real meat of our story finally begins. The chase proceeds through the wilderness, with the roles of hunter and prey constantly shifting back and forth…. each side using their skills and strengths to the utmost in the struggle to eliminate their opponents. If booby traps and neat sharpshooting tricks with the bow and arrow are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this chase a whole lot…. this wee Catgirl certainly did.
Eventually, Nam-yi and General Jyuu are the only men standing, by the time their paths cross with Seo-goon and Ja-in and reach our climax. Will our heroes triumph? Yeah…. you just know that’s gotta happen, but not without that poignant moment of melodramatic sacrifice that all Asian film goers seem to love. No… no “happy endings” here… but there is a satisfying one and isn’t that the whole point to this sort of story after all?
A happy ending in a Korean period melodrama? Shame on you for even considering it!
So what did Carolyn and I think of this one when it’s all said and done? Strangely enough… my sweetheart absolutely loved this film, saying it reminded her a lot of “Last of the Mohicans” and the whole “Robin Hood: Deadliest Archer in all of England”…. errr…. ummmm… I mean Korea…. vibe resonated well with her, subtitles and all. Me… I was happy enough, but felt that overall, despite the excellent acting on hand, simple easy to follow story (maybe even toooo simple….), and good cinematography, there should have been a bit….. well…. more to it all. I’m thinking that Nam-yi’s pursuit of the raiders could have been a bit more detailed without making the film seem overly long, and would have given more screen time to the action as opposed to the slower paced first hour or so of the film. Also…. there is never any real attempt in the story to redress the idea of just who framed Nam-yi’s family for Treason in the first place….. and that felt disappointing once you realize those enemies will never get their proper comeuppance. It might not be germane to the tale at hand, but it’s glaring absence was certainly felt by me. Ahhhh…. and replacing the CGI tiger with a real tiger during the climactic final chase sequence probably wouldn’t have hurt my feelings either…. (Yep…. there’s a tiger on hand just to eat some bad guys, and you just gotta love that!!) 😉
For me I was somewhat underwhelmed by the whole film. It was nice enough, but that first hour really dragged, sure it was all about set up and character development – but it was not really complicated enough to deserve so much time. As you say, when it got to the action/chase it improved a lot, but it did seem overly simplistic. Also like you I felt the lack of real conclusion to the opening sequence seemed a glaring oversight, and one that could quite easily have been resolved.
The acting was pretty good all through, and Moon Chae-won did enough to make me suspect she could be one to watch for the future. Actually the real draw for me was Park Hae-il who has very slowly made a bit of a name for himself in some very successful films. He has a kind of hang-dog rough diamond feel about him that makes him somewhat unique amongst his peers. He did well in some other films that did not quite tick all my boxes (like “Moss” and “Heartbeat”), but I am not sure he is quite at that level to actually carry a film on his own – and it was really needed here as most of the cast were your standard Korean Drama actors that people like me find familiar, but never too sure of their names. It was equally telling that he did not have the romantic angle about him – I really don’t think that is the sort of character he can play, which meant that our romance sub-plot was very secondary.
Then we have the Tiger. He was foreshadowed, and a bit wobbly, and frankly I think a film that is about Arrows could have done without a Deus Ex Tiger! Memorable though.
Still, although this one doesn’t replace “Musa the Warrior” as my all-time favorite Korean swordplay epic, it’s a good little action film in it’s own right. It hits all the right notes, even if it isn’t exactly on target in every scene. With that said, I can easily give it 4 healthy “Meows” out of 5. The Region 1 DVD is good, preserving the film in it’s widescreen format and giving you both the original Korean audio track with excellent subtitles as well as a reasonably done English audio dubbed track (although I may have forgotten to tell Carolyn about that lil’ feature…. Naughty, naughty me…. ;)) So if you want some nice action, and Martial Art melodramas are your thing too, Neko can say that you could do far worse than give this one a look-see.
I’ll be a little less generous. I don’t go for marks out of 5, but Elpeevio will call it Mildly Recommended. There is some fun to be had here, there is the potential start for a new actress, and Park Hae-il is developing into someone rather interesting. The problem with the film is that it took far too long to get going, and for a film of its length, it really was terribly shallow in terms of storyline (Chase, Hide, Shoot, Run, repeat). And no shame for not sharing the English dub – heresy it even existing. 🙂
Naturally, a Trailer is in order to wrap things up properly, so here goes!