Recent films like Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and Yuen Woo Ping's True Legend (2010) have overt magical elements woven into their stories, and even John Woo's magnificent historical epic Red Cliff (2008-09) relies extensively on CGI to create its sense of epic scale. But the new Korean film War of the Arrows (2011) dials back the visual effects and focuses on a story rooted in 17th Century history, in the process conjuring up some of the most gripping and visceral action to come along in recent years.
Director Kim Han-Min starts things in the middle of a tense action sequence. We don't know who any of the characters are yet, but the fact that armed men are chasing a young boy and girl with vicious dogs, obviously with the intention of killing them, rouses the audience's emotions from the film's first moments. Nam-Yi, almost paralyzed by fear, is trying to protect his little sister Ja-In, but he's too young and inexperienced. The sudden intervention of their father, the great archer General Choi, enables them to escape from their pursuers. From their hiding place, they see their father overwhelmed and killed. Traumatized, they make their way to a remote village where, not entirely welcome, they are raised in secrecy.
We never learn all the details of the backstory, but what can be pieced together is that King Gwanghaegun has submitted to the Qing rulers of Manchuria and that General Choi and his family were ordered executed for “treason” because they opposed foreign rule.
After the raid by Prince Dorgon's men, the entire film is a running fight between Nam-Yi and the Qing forces under the command of the effete prince who spends his spare time raping the female prisoners. Nam-Yi, like his father, is an expert archer. At first, the Qing commanders can't believe that he can be much of a threat, but gradually contempt gives way to fear, and finally – after the prince is killed – a desperate fight for survival.