Saturday, January 4, 2014

War of the Arrows

War of the Arrows (South Korean poster)
I've been on a lucky streak with martial arts movies and have seen one excellent film after another. Although, technically speaking, this South Korean blockbuster is an action movie and not a martial arts movie. There is no hand-to-hand combat and no mention of the martial arts in even a tangential way. Instead, War of the Arrows features combat via sword and, mainly, archery.

But, nomenclature aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie! Set in the 15th century during an apparently brutal Chinese invasion of Korea, the story is a standard trope: hero rescuing woman kidnapped by foreign villains. Of course, in an action film we're not looking for the plot complexities of Tolstoy. War of the Arrows executes its story well, and earns a unique feel through its gritty camera work, awesome period feel, and making the most of the focus on archery. The pace is a little slow until the action kicks in, but from there on out the movie is a taut as bowstrings and never looks back.

Another big plus was that there was little in the action that was over the top, and the realistic feel enhanced the tension. Also, the teasing of archers pulling back bowstrings and holding, aiming, waiting creates near constant suspense. This is because the long distance nature of an archery strike means there's a wait between the attack and the payoff that is totally different than you see in martial arts movies or action films using guns. The director - Kim Han-Min - exploits this to the hilt in the way he shoots and paces his film.

The final battle scene is like a chess match, with each surviving participant taking actions that then change what the rest of the participants must do. This constant set of reactions leaves the viewer completely unsure how things are going to end and who will live or die. Really well-executed finale to a satisfying rescue and escape storyline.

No, this is not really a martial arts film (despite the label I have here). However, people who like martial arts movies will probably enjoy it anyway. Also, for those looking to escape from the ridiculous bombast of most recent Hollywood action movies, War of the Arrows will be a refreshing change of pace and quality. Easy to see why it was a massive box-office hit in South Korea.

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