Kim Han-min's "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" quickly became Korea's most successful film of 2011, marching up the ranks to eventually bank 7,459,974 admissions. Since its release in September, Kim's historical action flick has been showered with local awards spanning all major categories. However once you get some of the stardust and glare out of your eyes, the film's success can be pinned down to its ability to be, quite simply, great entertainment.
The film takes place during the second Manchu invasion of Korea that occurred during the Joseon dynasty in 1636. The Manchu Qing Empire is invading Korea for the second time and within this Kim has created a local hero in Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il) to stand up against the invaders, save his sister (Ja-In played by Moon Chae-won) from her captors, and honour the memory of his slain father. He is the dark horse, the arrow in shadows, fighting against the odds with his legendary skills with the bow and his tenacious grip on duty and family honour.
There is nothing complicated here and the story's simplicity is mirrored in its structure. Act II takes a good 40 minutes to reach as the filmmakers clearly wanted to follow a more traditional path with introducing characters and events to the viewer. While watching it I had no issue with this or its pacing, but once I was submerged in Act II I began to feel that I was somehow cheated of quality action sequences. With the story being as simple as it is, Act I was a too indulgent and, in retrospect, added little to characters and the events that followed. The same backstory might have been presented through other cinematic/narrative techniques instead of eating up valuable screen time.
The most memorable scenes were when the Manchu general Jyuu Shin-Ta (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his elite guards were perusing our hero through the woods and mountains to finally emerge in a field for the film's final showdown. Here is where the piece shines and its high entertainment value was found. The line between the hunter and the hunted is blurred as our hero demonstrates his mastery over the bow and the arrows he lets fly. I wish more screen time might have been given to moments and events such as this. These scenes are fluid and kinetic, adding suspense and excitement to the chase, as blood is shed and the conflict begins to narrow to a sharp and blood dripping point.
Normally when a hero possesses such remarkable skills there is some form of motif or montage accompanying it as a form of understanding. Here though, there is little that justifies our hero's incredible ability. He does wield the bow of his respected and valiant father, and with it the memory and honour of his family, but with such a film I felt like it needed more of hook to our hero, his quest, and mostly his skills. Instead the filmmakers focused on setting up events and motivations rather than justifying our hero's potency with the bow. This might just be a personal choice but in a film that focuses on the bow as a weapon, they might have dived more into not only how our protagonist gain such a proficiency, but also submerged us more in the whole mythology of the bow as a weapon/symbolic tool.
The film is visual pleasing, beside a certain CGI tiger, with Kim capturing the intensity and energy require to pull-off this form of action. Again, the first quarter of the film was rather flat in this regard but soon all is forgiven as the arrows begin to wiz by as the sound of notch arrows and taut bowstrings stretch your nerves and let loose. Close-ups of the bowmen are paired with long tracking shots of men running through forest and mountains, synthesising the type of combat that is being witnessed. The action is riveting and well shot, driving the film forward to its somewhat melodramatic final scenes. The costumes were also eye-catching and added a much-appreciated dimension to the characters and their roles. The menacing garb of the Manchu general and his elite warriors in particular caught my attention and empowered them with a visual prowess that raised them up as a force to be reckoned with.
"Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon" has achieved much and its success on circuit is testament to its high entertainment value. I would have preferred a different structure to the tale and a reweighting of some of the story's elements but for a cinematic spectacle it delivers where it counts.
- C.J. Wheeler (Chriscjw@gmail.com)
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon""
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