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February 21, 2012

War of the Arrows

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Choi-jong-byeong-gi Hwal
Kim Han-min - 2011
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

War of the Arrows takes place in the area where Korea shares a border with Manchuria, in 1638. Compared to what was happening in Europe at the time, the culture and the battle armor worn by the soldiers here made me think of a more Medieval period. One could, with only a few changes, easily transpose the film to that earlier era of chivalry, something along the lines of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur

The film starts breathless from the get go, as a young man and a girl are hiding from some enemy soldiers. It is revealed that their father, who held some kind of court position, has been labeled as a traitor. The son, Nam-yi promises his dying father that he will do everything he can to protect little sister, Ja-in. The two are reluctantly taken in by Lady Kim, whose young son, Seo-goon, immediately has his eye on Ja-in. Fortunately, the little girl who can't stop crying and whining in those first scenes grows up to be a beautiful, and composed, young lady. Fast forward to thirteen years later, Ja-in is preparing to marry Seo-goon when the festivities are disrupted by invading solders. Taken prisoners by the Manchurians, Nam-yi travels north to rescue the pair.

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War of the Arrows was the second most popular Korean film of 2011. It's a good film, yet I think it would have been better had Kim Han-min not relied so much on hand held camera work. I understand that it seems for some to add to a sense of immediacy. Call me old fashioned, but it didn't always work for me. What did work, and what I suspect helped make the film a hit is watching the clean shaven, boyish Seo-goon show his mettle against the Manchurians, as well as watching Nam-yi try to outrun and outwit the better armed soldiers, running through the woods, and into physically challenging situations.

It helps that Park Hae-il comes off in his first scenes as a person who earns his heroism by sheer skill and tenacity. Aside from a couple of comic sidekicks, he's alone in the world, save for Ja-in. It is the kind of performance that brings to mind Toshiro Mifune, especially in the earlier films with Kurosawa, where we have a sense of both the outsider pushing his way through the world, and that same person's bouts of self-doubt or weakness. And who doesn't like women who kick ass? Certainly no one who usually visits this site. No surprise that Moon Chae-won has won awards and lots of attention as Ja-in, taking on all comers with sword and bow. A veteran of several Korean television series, this is an auspicious feature film debut.

Attention has been paid to period accuracy regarding the design of the bows and arrows, as well as some remarkable costumes from the era. The Manchurians are definitely a sight to behold with their heavily studded leather outfits, and custom shaved pates. Sure, the Manchurians are out to rape and pillage, but they dress to kill.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 21, 2012 09:22 AM