One thing I probably need to admit, up-front, is that I felt more than a little lost during portions of War of the Arrows. There were moments, especially early on, where I simply had no idea why any of this was happening.
Now, it's hardly the film-makers' fault that I'm not overly familiar with Korean history - and, the fact that I felt the need to do some of my own research into the historical period in which this film is set may even be a good thing, in the end. Thanks to this film, after all, I know have a basic understanding of the Joseon dynasty, and of the details surrounding the first and second Manchu invasion of Korea - none of which I was aware of before watching War of the Arrows. But, still, weaving a bit of this historical context into the film, itself, really wouldn't have killed them. It could have been something as simple as a bit of text, at the beginning, to set the scene for the unfamiliar audience. As it stands, it feels as though the film-makers simply assumed that the majority of the audience would be familiar with the time period.
To be fair, though, while this historical context may help you understand why all of this is happening, the lack of historical context wont make actually watching the events of the film playing out any less exciting. The heart of the film is, after all, a fairly straight-forward tale of rescue and revenge.
Nam-yi (Park Hae-il, and his younger sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), have had a rough life. As children, they were forced to watch as their father was declared a traitor and brutally slaughtered - along with everyone else they had ever known. In the chaos of the slaughter, the two are barely able to escape, themselves, carrying nothing but their father's prized bow. Eventually, they make their way to the home of their father's closest friend, Kim Mu-seon (Lee Kyeong-yeong). There, they are offered a safe haven, and are able to live out the next few years of their life in relative peace.
Years later, Nam-yi has become a skilled archer and hunter, but is largely unfocused - believing that there really isn't any future for the son of a declared traitor. Ja-in, on the other hand, intends to accept a marriage proposal from Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol), the son of their benefactor, in spite of her brother's protests. On the day of their wedding, though, a Manchurian horde, under the command of Prince Dorgon (Park Gi-woong), arrives - slaughtering anyone who puts up any resistance, and taking the rest prisoner. Nam-yi, who had been out hunting at the time, barely survives his own encounter with Manchurian soldiers - later returning to the village to find his benefactor among those killed, and his sister and her new husband missing. Taking up his father's bow, Nam-yi sets out to track down the invaders and rescue his sister. Though, as he pursues Prince Dorgon's forces, Nam-yi finds himself, in turn, pursued by a veteran Manchurian officer, Jyuushinta (Ryu Seung-ryong), and his own squad of elite soldiers.
So, like I said, a fairly straight-forward story - but, on which just happened to be placed in a historical context that I was very unfamiliar with. Nam-yi, with his almost super-human seeming ability to calculate the trajectory of the wind in order to fire off arrows that manage to curve around obstacles between him and his target, makes for a very effective hero, here. And, his quest to rescue his younger sister from a life of slavery is something that the audience can easily get behind.
There's also a very interesting parallel between Nam-yi and Jyuushinta, here. As the perspective begins to shift back and forth between the two, we end up with two entirely distinct plot-threads - with each being cast as the villain in the others story. To Nam-yi, Jyuushinta is clearly just one more obstacle between him and his sister. But, Jyuusinta is also a loyal soldier, who genuinely cares about the men under his command, and who takes their deaths personally. There's never any real doubt about exactly where the audience's sympathies are supposed to be directed - but, the attention given to Jyuushinta throughout the course of the film keeps it from being entirely black and white. It also doesn't hurt that Jyuushinta is a genuinely fascinating figure - intimidating, certainly, but never cruel, and more than willing to lead his men from the front. Some of his comrades, such as Prince Dorgon for example, may amount to little more than your standard generically evil caricatures, but Jyuushinta and the men under his direct command manage to be a bit more than that. It may be fair to say that much of the film's success rests on these two characters - but, that wouldn't be entirely fair to Ja-in and Seo-goon, who each contribute their own fair share of drama and excitement in their own respective roles.
The action sequences in War of the Arrows are the film's true high-light, though. Tense stand-offs, well-staged instances of guerilla warfare, and exciting chase sequences, all set-up to make good use of our hero's signature weapon - with occasional moments of more traditional sword-play to keep things interesting. CGI is only really used when necessary. Close up shots of arrows in slow-motion flight are typically well done - well enough that it didn't even occur to me to wonder whether they actually were CGI until after the film was over. One scene involving a CGI tiger, though, stands out as conspicuously bad. But, at least, it's only a short scene.
War of the Arrows is a fantastic action film. Sure, the film's historical setting confused me a little, but it also wasn't really important enough to the story being told to be a significant detriment - and, in the end, it inspired me to go ahead and learn a bit more about Korean history on my own, which was a nice bonus. The film is tense and exciting when it wants to be, and even manages to throw in a few moments of genuine emotional drama. War of the Arrows is definitely worth the time of any fan of Asian cinema.