The period is the early-to-mid sixteen hundreds in Korea, some time after the Japanese invasion but before the Manchu invasion, and when Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) was a teenager, he and his younger sister had to flee the forces of the new King who considered their father a traitor. One night they made good their escape - almost, as the soldiers set their dogs on them, and though they managed to shoot the hounds with arrows or smash their skulls in with rocks, there was the not inconsiderable matter of their masters to negotiate. Their father was executed, but not before he told his son he must now be his little sister's guardian, though when they grew up there was more trouble...
The idea of a one-man army in action movies was not a new one by the time this South Korean adventure, based in historical fact by director Kim Han-min who also penned the screenplay, indeed it seemed as though most of the action movies out of the eighties were based around that very concept, but the setting here marked this tale apart from those others from across the Pacific Ocean. There was a crash course in Korean seventeenth century events for the uninitiated, though you imagine that went down better in its native land where the concept of invasion from outside countries would have more resonance, and it was noticeable there was a political angle to this.
Mostly thanks to the bad guys being nasty Northerners, and the good guys being virtuous Southerners, which from this remove looked like a degree of editorialising was going on from Kim's point of view, though he would argue as a history buff he was simply reflecting the events of the times almost four hundred years ago. Maybe it was better to learn about these things from factual texts rather than basing your knowledge on the movies, and for the first, say, eighty minutes or so War of the Arrows was your basic Far Eastern, anguished romp through the sins of yesteryear, with a hero who did not seem up to much, preferring to run away from danger than confront it head on.
But this was merely a ruse, for Nam-yi was biding his time for his massive retaliation, one-man army style, as mentioned. Before that we see his sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) have her wedding day (which her brother disapproves of) ruined when the Manchu army gatecrashes it and enslaves all the townsfolk, including her and her new husband, royalty Seo-gun (Kim Mu-yeol), who puts up a valiant fight but is overpowered with everyone else. Only our hero gets away, escaping through the forest as the enemy snaps at his heels, faking his own death by apparently being shot off a cliff by one of the baddies' high-powered arrows; we know better, probably because there is more than an hour of the film to go and it would be a less than triumphant experience if the protagonist was offed at the halfway point.
So far, so average, but then War of the Arrows started to get very good indeed, building on all those establishing plotlines and set-ups to deliver the action and melodrama in spades. Nam-yi, heeding the orders of his deceased father, has become an excellent archer, or at least he does when push comes to shove and he had no choice but to ensure every arrow found its mark, almost to a superpowered degree (a certain DC Comics character may cross your mind in the latter stages of this). This extended last act, around three-quarters of an hour, was of extremely high quality, thanks to Kim's willingness to get crazy in the perils facing Nam-yi; he manages to free the villagers, but the Manchu army are not happy as you might expect, and send their best man and his troops after him through that forest - and over fields, and between cliffs, and into the path of a man-eating tiger as you wonder how much wilder this is going to get. It took a while, but this was well worth sticking with. Music by Kim Tae-seong.