Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows begins the way you would expect a film with that title to begin, i.e., with a battle. The opening sequence shows the fall of a castle in 17th-century Korea, in what seems to be the waning days of a civil war (actually the conclusion of the 1623 coup that brought King Injo to power). The lord of the castle is branded a traitor for opposing Injo’s coup and murdered in front of his children, teenage Nam-yi and his younger sister Ja-in, who nevertheless manage to escape, taking with them their father’s prized bow, and to make it to Kaesong, where their father’s best friend takes them in.
Thirteen years pass, with Nam-yi (Park Hae-il, seen perhaps most notably in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host) becoming an extremely talented archer but a bitter and jaded young man. When he learns that his host’s son, Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol) intends to marry Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), he opposes the wedding, on the grounds that he and his sister are still seen as the children of a traitor and that such a marriage would bring ruin to everyone involved. Seo-goon’s father overturns Nam-yi, though, and they go forward with the wedding.
Viewers unfamiliar with Korean history might at this point expect the film to turn into a war epic, perhaps the Korean answer to John Woo’s Red Cliff. The constant talk of Nam-yi and Ja-in’s status makes it seem as though civil war is once again brewing, and it is easy to imagine Seo-goon and Nam-yi joining forces to fight King Injo and avenge Nam-yi’s father. The film’s title, of course, only reinforces such expectations. (An alternative title is Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon, which, while quite the hyperbole, might fit the film better.)
That’s not quite what happens, though. Instead Seo-goon and Ja-in’s wedding is interrupted when a Manchu army storms the castle, killing Seo-goon’s father and capturing everyone but Nam-yi, who vows to find and rescue his sister. From then the film becomes not an epic chronicling the second Manchu invasion of Korea, but an action movie that follows Nam-yi as he mows down scores of Manchu warriors in his search for his sister.
If anything, War of the Arrows is more indebted to the western than it is to the war epic. Nam-yi is the cynical gunslinger—sorry, archer—who finds a purpose in life when he thought he had none, while Seo-goon is an awkward manchild who, when forced to face his responsibilities, finds that he is actually quite the brave and competent leader. The film is also in love with the Mexican standoff and features at least half a dozen of them, including not one, but two consecutive ones during the climax. More disturbingly, the depiction of the Manchus is reminiscent of that of Indians in pre-revisionist westerns. They’re cartoonishly evil monsters who use their prisoners for target practice, trick unarmed women and children into trying to flee so that they can ride them down and kill them, and are periodically taken by fits of maniacal laughter. Only Jyuushinta (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the Manchu general and only one to understand at once the threat Nam-yi poses, seems to have some depth and not to revel in gratuitous mayhem and destruction.
War of the Arrows doesn’t tread any particularly new ground, but what it does, it does well. The action is thrilling and doesn’t generally rely on too many close-ups and quick cuts (though there is an unfortunate scene involving a CGI tiger that looks straight out of a late-‘90s made-for-TV movie), and Nam-yi’s Green Arrow-like ability with the bow makes for some impressive sequences. The film is also surprisingly funny, most of the comic relief coming in the form of slapstick and physical comedy—a memorable fight in a high-class brothel early on in the movie ends in a most unexpected manner, and at some point we’re treated to a heavily-armed Manchu warrior fleeing in terror from a lone peasant with a rake. And if there are some uncomfortable overtones of South Korean nationalism, they’re not enough to detract from just how fun the whole thing is.