A different sort of review this time as ThingsFallApart is happy to welcome a guest reviewer to TFA Towers. Long term supporter of the blog Neko has agreed to open up her Litterbox and do a shared review! Now Neko also has a big interest Asian Cinema, although she spreads her wings a bit wider, and tends to look at the strange and wonderful Cinema that the whole big wide world has to offer. And whilst she is going to add her comments here, I will be doing the same at her review. Cool beans I think, and so I would like to give her a big TFA Welcome (along with her partner Carolyn who has also been ‘subjected’ to this particular movie).
So pleased to have been asked! Although I suspect your tastes in film tend to run to more “quality” cinema than my own, Hehehe!! Given this, I’m thinking we’ll have a fairly well-rounded view of this one overall.
(just to avoid confusion, Neko will be the one in red italics here, though I suspect long term readers will see the difference in style)
“War of the Arrows” was probably the biggest action hit from Korea last year, and has been so successful it got a limited North American Cinema release, DVD and Blu-Ray on both sides of the Atlantic, and also was given an English Dub (not for me, but it is rare for a live-action film to be given this treatment”). The story is as follows. Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) and Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) are the children of a Clan leader who has been marked down as a Traitor by the Joseon Empire, and in the initial scenes are forced to run away from a massacre in which all their family and friends are killed. They make their way to their Father’s friend, who takes them in as his own. Years pass, and the integration has not been seamless. Whilst Ja-in has grown into a beautiful woman, who is to be married by the eldest son of the Family, Nam-yi has remained an outsider. He spends his time honing his exception bow-skills whilst taking an hugely protective stance over his sister. Whilst he eventually agrees to his Sister’s marriage, he choses not to attend, which is fortunate as this is the day the invading Manchu forces from China decide to invade, and slaughter his adopted clan – taking away Ja-in in the process. Nam-yi embarks of a journey to rescue his sister, teaming up somewhat reluctantly with his adopted brother/Sister’s Fiancé and a clan member or two. Can Nam-yi rescue his Sister aided only by his grim determination and superior skills with the Bow and Arrow? And does his obvious abilities mark him down as a foe to be given special attention by the Manchu warriors?
Definitely a simple story… but given that this is an “action film”, that’s sometimes a good idea. For one thing, it made it much more accessible to a foreign audience perhaps not as well versed in the nuances of Asian drama, like my poor sweetie Carolyn for example. Although I too prefer the original language audio, the English dubbing can only be a good way for that same audience to become more easily exposed to such film fare. Never a bad thing in this girl’s book….
I really came to this film wanting to like it. The fact it has been (for a Korean non-horror or thriller) released into the West made me think it could be a good cultural crossover film. The initial problem is that it really has been made for the Korean audience, so many historical aspects are not fully explored. Most of us Westerners probably only know of modern Korea – maybe the Korean War, or the strange world of North Korea. The fact that South Korea is now one of the most prosperous and advanced nations on earth hides the fact that for centuries it really was a closed off and insular nation, evolving totally independently from the rest of Asia constantly fighting off invasion attempts from Japan and China. So when the film talks a lot about various people for being traitors (punishable by death) for working alongside foreigners, or even leaving the country temporarily (though I have no idea how that actually was proven), it does seem a little extreme to the modern Western eye.
Yes… definitely a bit confusing for a Western audience if Korean swordplay films are new to you…. Thankfully I’ve been exploring such films for a while, so I was able to fill in Carolyn when something not mentioned in the film was needed to understand some plot element like that. All in all, though, I’m certain these small things shouldn’t prevent a casual viewer from enjoying the basic storyline. (And it’ll give you the perfect excuse to watch a few more to learn all that Korean history….. )
It is also is really a film of two halves. The initial scene of Nam-yi and Ja-in’s escape from the massacre is good, and leads us to believe that this is going to be a non-stop action romp. It is a shame then when the next hour or so really slows down, and spends far too long on some character development that frankly left me getting rather bored and restless. It took me 5 minutes to understand that Nam-yi was a bit of a depressing loner with issues, I didn’t need every character to tell me this. When it does decide to move up a gear into chases and battles, it does improve, but I am sure many people will have been turned off of the film by then.
Here’s where I’m thinking a subplot involving some elements of the Treason charge could have been inserted to pep things up a bit….. It struck me as strange that nothing really comes of their predicament as wanted traitors to the Crown. Have say a visit by some court magistrate seeking to apprehend them just before the Manchu attack makes that character throw in his lot reluctantly with Nam-yi and Seo-goon to repel the invaders and save the captives. Could have made for some good tension to keep things livelier that first hour or so…. as well as making for a more satisfactory ending.
I did like the idea of using Arrows as the main weapon a refreshing one. Most of these types of films concentrate either on Martial Arts or Swordplay, and whilst they are a lot of fun, to see a different weapon become the focus was an interesting move. Looking around the internet, it seems a lot of effort has been placed in this area, with different types of Bows being used by the different characters, emphasising their skills, abilities and motivations. It also tried hard to keep a realistic tone on the most part – whilst some of the bow play is obviously “only in the movies” style, it steered clear of anything too mystical.
Yes… the use of an unusual weapon is definitely this film’s big draw. In many ways it reminded me of the old swashbuckling films I saw a girl… in particular “The Flame and the Arrow“ with Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo…. (Although Carolyn kept telling me she felt it was a lot like “Last of the Mohicans“…..but I’m thinking she’d had maybe one too many wine coolers by that time in the evening… Hehehehe!!)
In fact the attention to detail actually goes a fair bit further – the Manchu invaders actually speak Manchu. Now this is pretty much a dead language now, but the fact that the filmmakers have gone that extra mile to add this touch is indicative of the care that went into the realisation of the film, and raises it above some kind of genre action film.
Park Hae-il is slowly becoming a bit of a star in my eyes. He has actually been around longer than I realised (he was in “Memories of Murder”, one of those 15 films I still have not gotten round to reviewing, and “The Host”), but in the last couple of years he has also shared top billing in “Heartbeat” and “Moss”, which were films I enjoyed, but did not totally love. He has this downcast, hangdog look about him, which makes him perfect for playing the diamond in the rough sort of good.bad boy, which makes you both want him to succeed, and get angry with him. Whilst he is not without some charm, I do wonder though if this is going to be as good as it gets for him – is he going to be able to stretch himself to do Romance, or comedy, and lead in such a film?
I felt he carried himself well here as our hero, but if anything, I’m thinking he was more a victim of the screenplay rather than lacking in the acting skill to do quality work. I’d definitely be interested to see him take the lead again.
Moon Chae-won won a few award for this performance (which I think is easily her biggest role to date), and I think she really does have a future to be much more than just a pretty Korean actress (there are just too many of them). She gives a winning performance here, but is off screen too much for my liking, but I think I have seen enough to expect bigger things from her in the future.
I agree… there are definitely just so many other Korean actresses to compete with, but her role here was a good one for her. Hopefully one she be given the chance to build on in future roles. Overall, I felt she gave a strong effort, that in many ways outshined her co-stars with real “substance” for her character. But then again…. I am personally partial to strong female roles in films…..
My overwhelming impression though is one of disappointment. It really is well made, and there are some good performances. A couple of scenes are truly excellent, and it looks as beautiful as any Korean film. It is just that it is very unbalanced, and spends far too long setting up what is in reality quite a basic story. There are good guys and bad guys, and they chase each other. The end goal is a rescue, and nothing is really done with the good early work done about the murder of our hero’s clan, nor his relationship with most of the other characters. I enjoyed the action side of things, but I never really got emotionally invested in any of the characters, and there was a real lack of any sort of human or emotional arc. I guess the simplistic thing to say is that it lacked heart.
Hehehe…. I’m a bit a softie here…. I was so touched to see the way Nam-yi carried the wedding slipper he’d given his sister throughout the middle of the movie just so he could return it to her in person. Yeah… maybe it was at wee bit hokey and melodramatic…. but I’m not ashamed to say I reared up a bit when he gave it back to her in Prince Dorgon’s tent. For me the love and selfless dedication he had for his sister seemed very real…. and it’s only that he spent so much time hiding behind the facade of the “noble loner” that makes him seem perhaps a less than sympathetic hero.
So a fine looking film, and one with numerous merits. But as it is woefully unbalanced, and lacks that melodramatic touch that Korean films usually bring. For that reason I can only call it Mildly Recommended.
For me… it ended up being a fairly minor film, but one that is in no way a disappointing one. I had a fun evening’s movie watching on the couch, and a chance to watch some nice Martial Art action instead of my usual supernatural horror. The sheer fact that Carolyn (not a subtitle movie fan at all) enjoyed it as much as I did says a lot for the film, so I can give it 4 “Meows” out of 5 on my scale.