So consider it high praise that “War of the Arrows” offers an experience decidedly different. While far from the first arrow-based film, this South Korean effort is arguably the classiest and most exciting in memory.
Set in the early 17th century, “War” deals with the Manchu empire at large, and the bonds of a family in specifics, as highly skilled archer Nam-Yi (Park Hae-Il, “The Host”) hunts for his kidnapped sister, Ja-in (newcomer Chae-Won Moon). The film’s initial raids and skirmishes — whether one-on-one or army-against-village — illustrate writer/director Kim Han-Min’s insistence on adhering to historically accurate violence.
In other words, prepare yourself to see an infant (albeit shown as a wrapped bundle) be tossed down a well by those malevolent Manchus. (While we’re offering “beware” notices, there’s a disgusting scene in which one man rather graphically vomits into the face of another man he’s pinned to the ground. And yet, I stick to my aforementioned assertion that the film is refined.)
The pot boils before reaching a final-quarter battle that exudes authenticity while rousing viewers’ spirits, all based around the exchange of arrows. There’s something inherently cinematic and poetic about an arrow whizzing by — an effect that Han-Min milks to his advantage. He makes use of the arrow-POV shots as so many directors have, but in a way I haven’t seen in films before. In Hollywood films, the camera seems mounted mid-arrow or substitutes for the arrow entirely; here, Han-Min sticks it at the weapon’s tail end, so we see it bending wildly as it pierces the wind.
The effect is remarkable, as is the heightened reality of wire-fu choreography as our game’s pawns leap from treetop to treetop. Incredible action permeates so much of the work, I didn’t mind the elongated running time. —Rod Lott