After humming along nicely for an hour, Korean costume spectacle “War of the Arrows” lets fly with a second half of nonstop action and excitement. Toplining Park Hae-il (“The Host”) as an archer whose prowess puts Robin Hood to shame, this rip-roaring yarn has hit the bull’s-eye locally, with 7.4 million admissions since Aug. 11. Reissued Oct. 21 in a director’s cut, “Arrows” has now edged out “Sunny” as South Korea’s biggest domestic hit of 2011, and scored respectable numbers in limited U.S. release Oct. 7. Fests seeking high-energy crowdpleasers should check it out; ancillary will be robust.
Eliminating the ponderous plot development that frequently hampers South Korean period actioners, scripter-helmer Kim Han-min cracks the narrative whip right from the start. Attention-grabbing 1623-set prologue finds youngster Nam-yi (Lee Da-wit) and little sister Ja-in (Jeon Min-seo) narrowly escaping death when their father is branded a traitor and killed by rivals in the Chosun dynasty court.
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Cut to 1636, and Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) and the beautiful Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) remain in the care of Kim Mu-seon (Lee Kyeong-yeong), a wealthy family friend whose slightly nerdy son, Seo-gun (Kim Mu-yeol), has asked Ja-in to marry him. As bad luck would have it, the couple’s wedding day coincides with the Manchu invasion of Korea, resulting in Ja-in and Seo-gun being captured and held prisoner near the Korea-Manchuria border.
Perfectly fine entertainment so far, the pic becomes full-on exhilarating when Nam-yi, who has evaded capture, determines to rescue his sister. Previously seen as a talented archer with no focus in life, Nam-yi springs brilliantly into action as some sort of superman with Ph.D-level knowledge of bow-and-arrow aerodynamics, plus the ability to hear enemy missiles and take split-second evasive action.
With these talents shown in dazzling p.o.v. and slo-mo images, Nam-yi picks off dozens of enemy soldiers en route to saving Ja-in from the lecherous advances of Manchu prince Doreukon (Park Gi-woong). But that’s just half the battle in getting Ja-in and Seo-gun to safety. Nam-yi’s cat-and-mouse game with fearsome Manchu warrior Jiusinta (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his uber-macho hit squad is supremely staged and packs real emotional punch when the final arrow hits its target.
A major change from his previous features, psychodrama “Handphone” and murder mystery “Paradise Broken,” helmer Kim marshals large-scale action with considerable flair. Thesping, much of it in the almost extinct Manchu language, is tops: Park shades his man-of-action heroics with warm notes of quiet contemplation, Ryu is all things rugged as the dominant heavy, and TV star Moon is terrific as the feisty girl with her own set of combat skills.
Topnotch cinematography by Kim Tae-seong (not to be confused with the composer of the same name here) includes thrilling chase scenes in misty forests and a riot of carnal colors in the randy royal’s boudoir. Excellent CGI blends seamlessly into the action, and the Manchu fighters look great in fur-lined heavy leather costumes. Other tech work is first-class.