When the womanly Paris of Troy, hiding in ambush, fired an arrow from his slender bow and pinned the foot of Diomedes to the ground, he leapt out from hiding to crow of his victory. “Hit you are, and hard!” Paris bragged. “No wasted shot, that!” But Diomedes, a hero of the manly hoplites who fought face to face with oaken shields and ash spears, sneered, “You archer, foul fighter … Now you have scratched the flat of my foot … I care no more than if a witless child or a woman had struck me. This is the blank weapon of a useless man, no fighter.” Diomedes was not alone in his scorn. Across the yawning centuries spanning the plains of Troy and the grassy gap at Agincourt, wagers of war in western civilization held archers in dripping contempt. The bow was considered a weapon of mere skirmishers – peasants, bandits, or cowards.
The 2011 Korean blockbuster War of Arrows suggests a different outlook. I don’t think I will be spoiling too much by revealing that in the first two minutes of the film, a little girl is nearly gobbled up by an attack dog when an arrow, fired from the shadows, saves her and catches the dog midlunge, carrying him sideways in slow motion through the air. So the girl is safe, for the moment, but an ugly gang of bad guys is charging right behind the dog and director Kim Han-min’s award-winning film is off to a running start.
We never learn specifically who the bad guys are, or why they’re attacking. It doesn’t matter, or at least Kim doesn’t want it to matter. What interests Kim are crisp action sequencing, gorgeous cinematography, and depositing his characters into impossible circumstances to see how they fare. About half an hour after the dog attack, once we have gotten to know our heroes, a fresh party of villains thunders onscreen. They are horsemen with topknots and leather-studded armor, bearers of lassos and axes and grappling hooks and bows and arrows and shockingly callous violence. They talk in growling aspirates and chopping affricates that, when measured against the dragging quaver of the modern Korean our heroes speak, give a fearsome and alien edge to these invaders.
If, like me, you get disoriented without a broader historical context to the action, here is what the film doesn’t tell you: In 1636, Manchu armies invaded the Joseon kingdom on the Korean peninsula as part of a broader strategic campaign to undermine the tottering Ming dynasty. The Joseon king was compelled to kowtow before a Manchu emperor. In the process, according to the promotional material of War of Arrows, the Manchu carried away half a million Joseon civilians. Director Kim Han-min gives us the story of one family caught up in this transportation.
Kim follows the trials of a bow hunter called Nam-Yi as he tracks his sister and her groom who have both been seized by a Manchu warparty. Portions of the film feel derivative. Apocalypto will come to mind often, as will Last of the Mohicans and House of Flying Daggers. War of Arrows doesn’t outdo any of those films, but it remains as good a summer action flick as I’ve seen in the last several summers. Thankfully, the version streaming on Netflix is subtitled and not dubbed. At times, the subtitles are wonderfully nonsensical. (“The other day I went to the so-called Songak’s finest joyhouse!”) Elsewhere they are misspelled. But the Manchu language is a few dozen geriatric native speakers away from extinction, and hearing it spoken in a narrative context is a real thrill.
More important, the action is first-rate. Characters reveal themselves not through dialogue but by wading into the fray, or quivering in the shadows, or fleeing in terror. They don’t duel in wire-strung ballets as in the kung fu epics, but by creeping through the treeline with their bows and arrows. These weapons introduce whole new planes of cinematic combat. Characters calculate the wind by the bending of the grasses, and shoot midget “sniper arrows” or axehead “half-pounders” that splinter chunks out of trees. And in their hands, the firing of an arrow can appear as an almost orgasmic release – the creaking draw of the bow, the sweaty aim and hold, a gritting of the teeth, and then with a sigh and a breathy whistle through the fletching, the loosed dart. In War of Arrows, the effeminate weapon of Paris becomes an instrument of manhood.