One of the largest Korean blockbusters of last year, it's not too difficult to understand why it's such a crowd pleaser of an action movie. Lone skilled marksmen almost always makes for a beeline at the box office; just look any war film and you'll probably find the sniper the sexiest of the lot for that one shot one kill mantra that gets translated on screen in romanticised terms. If it's a period piece, then that will be the skilled archer, relying on his ranged weapon to take down enemies before they even know what hit them.
But it's not just plain wall to wall action from start to end, as there's a proper story to ground and root the audience emotionally to the characters involved in this period war film. Set in the 17th century, it tells of the brother and sister pair of Nam-Yi (Park Har-Il) and Ja-In (Moon Chae-Won), having to escape from a purge by the King on their household for what would be treason supposedly committed by their father. He sacrifices himself to get them going to one of his friend's abode, where they grow up and Ja-In is soon to be married to their benefactor's son Seo-Goon (Kim Mu-Yeol). But the marriage ceremony got rudely interrupted by the second invasion of the Manchus, who come in full force to plunder, rape and enslave.
Separated from his sister and her groom, War of the Arrows becomes that one man bow-and-arrow Rambo who's forced into violence and killing of anyone standing in his way to be reunited with his sibling. The stage was carefully set to let the audience know just how skilled our leading protagonist is, using what would be his father's famed bow, with the ability to bend his projectiles ala Wanted, except that this is more science than science fiction. For amatuer archers out there, there's also a distinction pointed out by the invading Manchu forces who compare the difference in skillset and equipment used by their lone enemy, involving a shorter and thus more mobile bow as compared to their longer versions, with a half pound arrow tip able to bust through bark, trunk and tear a hole in the body. There's also the crossbow involved, but it's just not as sexy as the traditional stringed weapon.
Writer-director Kim Han-Min maintains a keen pace and never lets the narrative sag once danger sets in from all quarters, with everyone involved, both hunter and prey, realize that the tables can be turned at any time. Battles are kept tremendously tensed, with build up just like how one would arm the bow weapon, building up a good old fashion tension before letting it all rip. And a good balance is struck in keeping things quite varied rather than to be reliant on the stringed weapon all the time, especially since Seo-Goon doesn't have any fighting ability other than the ubiquitous sword. And it's not just kill or be killed as a mantra, as Nam-Yi has decent humanity put into him, never wanting to kill for the sake of, and demonstrating fair play even if the enemies fail to reciprocate.
Park Hae-Il plays the mustachioed leading man with aplomb, and draws you to his cause without much fuss. Everyone will be able to identify with the need to rescue one's family and sibling, and the story has it all to include daring raids and treacherous escapes, heightened by the cat and mouse game of pursuit almost all of the time as it races toward a fantastically set up finale. Moon Chae-Won also won the 2011 Blue Dragon and Daejong Film Awards for Best Mew Actress, and it's no surprise to see why, being the feisty sister who doesn't back down without putting up a good fight, a marked difference in the standard damsel in distress role, which makes the final battle all the more exciting with a random factor thrown into the entire equation.
With all round good performances and a story that sucks you in from the get go, it's a standard fare action film done right, with likable heroes and heroines and villains that you'll love to hate drawing a very clear and distinct line between good and evil, death and survival, that makes this a clear blockbuster and crowd pleaser. It's not every day that one gets to see a Robin Hood equivalent film that's grittier and more gripping with plenty of edge of your seat material, and War of the Arrows is that kind of film done to perfection. Highly recommended!