Set in 1636, the second Manchurian invasion of Korea rages chaos, as villages are attacked by overpowering Manchurian soldiers. The Manchurians kidnap childhood sweethearts, Ja-in and Seo-Goon on their wedding day. In an effort to save his sister, Ja-in’s brother Nam-Yi sets out to defeat the enemy and save his sister and other Korean victims with only 1 bow.
The more I watch Asian cinema, the more I realize that the filmmaking system in that part of the world is much better than that of the United States. There, studios seem to back the odd projects - where in the U.S., they steer clear of them. Domestically, they're looking for a proven product, a sure thing. But over there, they're allowed to make whatever they want. For example, a movie like 'Battle Royale' would never be made by a U.S. studio unless it was based upon a wildly popular teen book series and there was a void of a teen-fueled franchise - like 'The Hunger Games,' an American teen-friendly rip of 'Battle Royale.' With the 'Harry Potter' film franchise having wrapped up, Lionsgate is chomping at the bit to take its place in pop culture as the next big series. But would any American studio touch a story about government-forced child death matches had it not been based on proven material? No. But Japan did back in 2000 and it was called 'Battle Royale.' They had the stones to make it fresh, creative, original and gritty. 'The Hunger Games' appears to be nothing more than an expensive probably PG-13 version of it that wouldn't have existed had it not been for Japan tackling it first.
What does all this have to do with 'War of the Arrows?' Considering how much the U.S. was bombarded with and burned out by expensive epic movies in the last decade, 'War of the Arrows' is a refreshing outsider's take on the genre that returns us to pre-CG epic movies made on limited budgets – and it's absolutely awesome. Had an American studio tried making this movie, it would be an effects-filled fiasco just like many of the others, but as it is, it's brilliant.
'War of the Arrows' opens with an intense sequence showing a village being raided. Soldiers of the new villainous king are cutting their way through this small town hunting down a few specific opponents of the king deemed as traitors. This scene is made uniquely intense because we basically see it from the point-of-view of a little girl, the daughter of a hunted "traitor." She and her teenage brother are not only running from the soldiers, but also from a pack of trained enemy dogs. Be warned, if you don't like seeing animal cruelty on screen, you probably won't enjoy this opening sequence. Several dogs are shown being killed by swords, arrows, and repeated bashings with blunt objects.
When their father knows that he's not going to make it out alive, he distracts the soldiers long enough for his kids to get away. But before doing so, he commissions the son with acting as his little sister's protective father figure, telling them the location of a secret village of dissenters who can teach him the art of archery.
Cut to 13 years later. The older brother, Nam-Yi, is now a fool. He's become a self-loathing drunk. He doesn't mind his leaders and has no self value. His now-grown sister, Ja-In, is very beautiful, but because Nam-Yi is more protective than he ought to be, no man has the courage to ask his permission to court her. Only making matters worse is the mindset that Nam-Yi carries. He believes that no one will want to marry her because she's the daughter of a traitor. But everything changes in a 'Braveheart' sort of way when she marries a good man without his permission. During the wedding festivities, the village is discovered and raided by the king's men – much like the scene from the opening of the film.
Wanting nothing to do with his sister's wedding, Nam-Yi hunts in the mountains with his friends while the raid occurs - but he and his friends don't go unscathed. Some of the prince's best archers spot them leaving the trees and engage them in battle. Being the first time in a life-or-death situation since the tragedy 13 years earlier, Nam-Yi's instincts and training instantly kick in stronger than they ever have before, but it's only enough to keep himself alive. When he gets back to the burned out village, he learns that his sister has been taken to the prince – but Nam-Yi's not going to stand for that.
The first half of 'War of the Arrows' establishes the characters and gets Nam-Yi to a point where he can rescue Ja-In. The second half is comparable to that of 'Apocalypto,' focusing on Nam-Yi's smart attempt at getting the hell out of dodge. It's fun, cool and stylized, filled with plenty of tension and violent action - all with a minimal budget and very little CG.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA has put 'War of the Arrows' in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The blue vortex keepcase, which houses both the Region-A BD-25 and DVD of the film, slides vertically into a cool black matted cardboard keepcase. As with most Well Go Blu-rays, a slew of unskippable videos play before the main menu, including an FBI warning, a vanity reel and trailers for 'Let the Bullets Fly,' '1911,' 'A Better Tomorrow' and 'The Man From Nowhere.'
'War of the Arrows' has been given a nice 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Despite the case claiming that the film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it's actually shown in 2.35:1.
What you will immediately notice is the great sharpness and clarity. Despite being set in the dark dead of night, details are powerful and precise in the opening sequence. You'll see individual specks of blood splatter as arrows pass through the bodies of innocent villagers and chomping dogs. Sadly, the second thing you will notice is the banding, which actually occurs more than a handful of times throughout the film. Banding isn't the only compression flaw found on the disc. Flickering aliasing occasionally appears in close-ups of hair and in tightly woven clothing patterns.
Despite the black levels being very strong, there's a small amount of crushing that occurs in the middle of the film. Fleshtones are natural and contract is consistent. 'War of the Arrows' isn't wildly colorful, but the colors are featured are natural and not overly saturated. The red of blood is deep and strong. There aren't any traces of digital noise, DNR, edge enhancement or artifacts.
While there are both lossless Korean and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, I recommend going the Korean route with subtitles because the English dub is so inorganic and flat that it's an unnecessary distraction.
Much like the sharpness of the video, the high quality audio is immediately noteworthy upon starting the film – only it's flawless. All channels are constantly in use with well-mixed effects and music, making this the very best and most dynamic use of sound in a Well Go USA release that I've seen to date.
The opening raid is a demo-worthy sound sequence. The footsteps of armed enemies rushing the village adds to the intensity. The speakers are also lit up with barking dogs, crackling sounds of burning torches, chinking armor and swords and screaming civilians. The great use of bass and LFE also adds to the panic attack-inducing tension.
This great mix never lacks. The calm scenes feature just as noteworthy audio as the action ones. Seamless imaging becomes a central character as the bow and arrow fighting becomes more prevalent. Many shots playfully feature arrows whizzing past the camera's point of view. Each time, the mix truly makes the arrows sound as if they're soaring past your head.
'War of the Arrows' is a refreshingly original and creative take on the epic movies. It takes the genre back to its low budget, low CG roots. Instead of banking on huge sequence with hundreds of background actors and CG hoards for your entertainment, it establishes a story and characters worth caring for. With very few special effects, the action is still able to get your heart pumping enough to make you sit on the edge of your seat. The extremely sharp and crisp definition of the video is only lacking because of compression issues – banding and aliasing, to be specific. The audio, however, isn't lacking at all. The five-star demo-worthy lossless track is just as impressive in the down-time than it is during the intense battle sequences. Despite a void of worthy special features, 'War of the Arrows' is still a recommended Blu-ray.