NYAFF Review: War of the Arrows


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

There's something engrossing about a a good old-fashioned action/adventure movie: the bravery, the risk, the moments of daring and derring-do. Even when it comes in a familiar package, even when you've seen similar characters and character trajectories, you can't deny the excitement or the energy of great action sequences.

In a way, that's what War of the Arrows is like (also known internationally as Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon). That may sound like faint praise, but it's not meant to be. War of the Arrows is highly engaging historical action blockbuster, and I can see why it was the top-grossing Korean film for 2011. Once it gets going, the movie goes badass and doesn't really let up.

War of the Arrows (Choejongbyeonggi Hwal | 최종병기 활)
Director: Kim Han-Min
Rating: R
Country: South Korea

I don't think I've seen an action movie where archery figures so prominently. Even in Robin Hood films, the focus shifts to swordsmanship. Bows and arrows are used as punctuation -- they underline some notion of skill and proficiency which is then demonstrated with a blade in the end. Maybe they opt for swords because they're a stronger presence on screen. (Nevermind that the draw weight on a traditional English longbow is between 90lbs to 100lbs; roughly 70lbs to 80lbs on a Korean bow.) A duel to the death with swords: okay. Even a gun fight: sure, that has a certain kind of machismo. Bows and arrows, though: ...what?

War of the Arrows has its share of swordplay, but it's really all about the archers. There's our hero, Nam-Yi (Hae-Il Park), who must rescue his people from the invading Chinese Qing army. They ruthlessly raid Nam-Yi's Korean border town during his sister's wedding. The leader of the Qing army oozes perverse villainy. He's an aristocratic loafer and rapist who dons a tiger skin cape beneath a banner of blue and gold. You want him dead as soon as he smiles.

Nam-Yi can dispense of regular mooks left and right, but his main adversaries are a cadre of Manchu master bowmen. The odds are stacked against him. He wears his regular clothing and travels by foot, the Manchu archers are on horseback and wear red studded-leather. Nam-Yi's also severely outgunned: the Chinese bows are much stronger, and they have heavy arrowheads that can pulverize wood and shatter bone. They even look more menacing, with tips like shovels crossed with axes.

The Manchu master bowmen occupy that odd yet familiar space in villainy: the specialist henchman. The main baddie might be pervy and megalomaniacal, maybe even cartoony in his or her displays of evil, but the specialist henchman is a consummate professional. The specialist isn't concerned with the spoils of war (in this case rape and Korean slaves) or in the glory of conquest; the specialist is like a skilled contract employee obsessed with getting a job done. The lead Machu archer has a certain admiration and envy for Nam-Yi, but only to a point.

These sorts of underdog battles make for great fights because they stress inventiveness, craftiness, and depth of skill rather than normal shows of strength. They're also about people pushing themselves beyond what they believe they're capable of; not just brains against brawn, but added brains and added brawn against all odds.

Think of some good fight scenes you've watched -- it's not always about how much a character overwhelms someone with brute force but how they adapt to the challenge and create a solution through lateral thinking or bending the rules. Nam-Yi can bend the flight path of his arrows just so, but he's got other tricks up his sleeve. There's a moment while battling the Manchu archers where Nam-Yi has only desperation on his side, but better that than nothing.

In fact, desperation becomes the mother of heroism in War of the Arrows. Nam-Yi's sister, Ja-In (Chae-Won Moon), also takes a stand when she comes face to face with the Qing leader. Rather than be broken and submit to him, she declares her identity as a warrior's daughter. If she dies, she will die fighting like her father. Her groom, Seo-Goon (Mu-Yeol Kim), steps up and understands his obligation to fight. His initial softness melts away, and, similarly, if he dies, he will die fighting. Other unlikely or reluctant heroes emerge, and they wind up being more effective than the guards who were crumpled by the Qing army during the wedding.

These moments of heroism all play into a larger assertion of Korean identity in the face of Chinese influence. I wish I was more familiar with the country's history with China during this time (roughly the 17th century), which I'd imagine would lend extra heft to these moments.

War of the Arrows's deliberate construction has real pay off. After its action-packed open, things seem somewhat carefree for much of the film's first half hour. There are even moments of slapstick. But once the Qings show up, we shift to historical action epic mode. No more laughs, no more quiet moments. It's all fight and flight and fight again. When the enslaved Koreans look back over the hills to their homeland, they'd much rather live and die there. And if they're going to die, they'll die heroes.

[War of the Arrows will be screening at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater Friday, June 29th at 6:00 PM]

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War of the Arrows reviewed by Hubert Vigilla



Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
How we score:  The Flixist reviews guide


Hubert Vigilla
Hubert VigillaEditor-at-Large   gamer profile

Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely more + disclosures



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    Filed under... #Action #adventure #festival films #Foreign #Korea #New York Asian Film Festival 2012 #notable #Reviews



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