Movie Review: Bow, the Ultimate Weapon
There’s no time like summer for blockbuster action flicks, and this past summer was no exception. Among big-budget films like Sector 7 and The Front Line, sageuk action thriller Bow, the Ultimate Weapon (also titled War of the Arrows) reigned supreme in domestic box office sales and performed solidly at awards ceremonies. Lead actor Park Hae-il took home three best acting awards, with co-stars Ryu Seung-ryong and Moon Chae-won receiving subsequent supporting actor awards.
Bow, the Ultimate Weapon was also awarded handsomely on its cinematography, visual effects, sound effects, and overall technical achievements. And for good reason, too – it’s simply impossible to make a 122-minute chase movie engaging without extreme technical proficiency, something that writer/director Kim Han-min delivers in spades. The movie looks good, sounds great, and is executed to near perfection. There are some unavoidable misses, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do by delivering five-star, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Which all goes to say that this is a guaranteed good time.
SONG OF THE DAY
“달 그림자” from the soundtrack. [ Download ]
Bow, The Ultimate Weapon is set against the backdrop of the second Manchu invasion of 1636, which effectively forced the Joseon Dynasty into submission to the Qing Dynasty, making them a tributary state. In a move that ended the war, King Injo kowtowed before the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in a humiliating ritual that he was allegedly forced to repeat several times. It’s in the midst of this invasion that the table is set, as we see the horrors of war and the havoc it wreaked on the people of Joseon through the eyes of one village, and more specifically, one family cruelly torn apart.
Plot-wise, we’re dealing with some pretty standard stuff. Our hero’s sister is taken hostage on her wedding day by Qing invaders, leading him to take up a bow and arrow to save her, effectively becoming a one man army against – well, a real army. The first half-hour sets up the characters in broad strokes before careening into a conflict that gets more personal and urgent by the minute, leaving epic moment after epic moment. The latter half of the movie is essentially one long chase scene, but it’s handled in such a way that the tension only escalates and never ebbs, careening the movie and its audience into a startlingly quiet but pitch-perfect final conflict with only a few hiccups along the way.
Despite an unsurprising structure, the action is grounded by stellar performances. There aren’t as many deeply emotional scenes are you’d expect from a sageuk, but that seems to mostly come from the constrictions of the premise – it’s simply hard to emote when you’re being hunted. The emotions remain primal because our characters are locked in a primal conflict, so we’re spared excessive weeping or chest-thumping agony. What emotions we see are real, edited and staged in such a way as to keep the tension sky-high. Quite simply put, this is action done right.
We meet our hero, CHOI NAM-YI (Park Hae-il) as a child amidst the chaos of officials coming for his father’s head. For reasons unknown his father has been branded as a traitor, and even as children Nam-yi and his sister aren’t safe from the sword. Their father assists in helping them to escape, giving Nam-yi his own bow as well as his new sacred calling: that he must take care of his younger sister until he dies. With that, Nam-yi and his sister watch from the forest as their father is killed.
There’s an assured sense of character even from how bravely both brother and sister act, as he fights off hunting dogs in order to save her. His father tasks him with finding a nobleman named Kim Moo-shin, who takes both Nam-yi and his sister in despite all the risks involved with raising a traitor’s child. There’s an inscription on his father’s bow which Nam-yi’s new surrogate father reads: “Push like pushing a mountain, and pull like holding a tiger’s tail.”
When we flash forward thirteen years later we get a glimpse of Nam-yi’s daily life – he enjoys hunting because he’s incredibly skilled with a bow and arrow, but he’s mostly listless and sort of meanders his way through life. The weight of being a traitor’s child not only bears on his conscience but also his prospects for the future, which are grim. Because he’ll forever be in hiding from the government, the life he leads now is all he’ll have. He’s fiercely protective of his sister, the last remaining family he has, so of course he takes up the call to action when her life is in jeopardy. Besides a sometimes-foul mouth and bad temper, he’s the stuff heroes are made of.
His sister, CHOI JA-IN (Moon Chae-won) is also first introduced to us in her childhood, displaying the same spunk and fearlessness we see from her during multiple sequences throughout the film. She was so desperate to go into battle and save her father, even as a young girl, that Nam-yi had to bind her hand to his so she wouldn’t go running off. Thirteen years later, she ends up betrothed to the son of the household that took both her and her brother in.
You won’t find a hanbok-wearing damsel in distress here. Even in the moments that she’s in distress she displays such bravery that one almost wonders whether she needs her bother’s help at all. Her screen time isn’t much, but in the moments we do have with her (like in the Prince’s tent, the grand finale) we get a very real sense of who she is. And she’s awesome.
We don’t really get into her thoughts pre-marriage, as in one moment we see her groom-to-be petitioning Nam-yi for her hand in marriage, and the next she’s in wedding garb. But these are only precursor moments for what really sets the story in motion, the Manchu invasion.
Her betrothed, KIM SEO-GOON (Kim Mu-yeol) has lived an entitled life as a nobleman’s son, and first comes off as nice, if not relatively harmless. There’s a great moment in the beginning of the film that sets up the relationship dynamic between him and Nam-yi, while also serving to give us some of the dark comedy that’s interspersed throughout the film. With Nam-yi as Ja-in’s guardian he gets on his knees to ask him for his sister’s hand, an idea that Nam-yi is more than unhappy about, even though the three of them have lived under the same roof for over a decade.
It probably doesn’t help Seo-goon’s cause that Nam-yi is severely drunk, and the moment Seo-goon asks Nam-yi for Ja-in’s hand the two engage in a sword fight in a gisaeng house. Nam-yi tells Seo-goon that he’ll only get to have Ja-in if he can successfully cut him, because he worries that Seo-goon is too much of a weakling to protect his sister. “I’d rather give her to a butcher,” Nam-yi claims, and the fight ends only because Nam-yi is so drunk that he vomits all over Seo-goon. It’s so incredibly gross, but also pretty hilarious, because Seo-goon attempts to use his hat as a shield.
Who won the fight isn’t as important as Nam-yi’s acceptance of the wedding, helped along by his surrogate father’s approval. Seo-goon has some really great moments of bravery throughout the film, and his first comes when he takes up a sword against the invading Manchu, who come barreling in the middle of his wedding ceremony to Ja-in.
The visuals are striking, fear-inducing, and effective. Ja-in is one of the first to realize something’s wrong when she notices that the tea in the ceremonial wedding cup is rippling – the first chilling sign that the vast Manchu army is fast approaching. Nam-yi, who’s chosen to eschew watching the wedding ceremony in order to hunt deer in the mountains, ends up at a perfect vantage point to watch the army descend like locusts on his village. The sight of the army is harrowing, just as much as the cries of the villagers who are systematically killed or captured as slaves.
No one is safe from the marauding horde, as both Ja-in and Seo-goon are captured by ropes around their necks. Though her bravery is ineffective, the image of Ja-in brandishing her jade hair pin as a weapon already puts her into awesome territory. Seo-goon’s mother dies attempting to protect Ja-in from being dragged away, and their father meets the same fate – but once again, we get a startlingly glorious moment when he emerges, blood staining his clothes, to challenge the invaders. There’s no dearth of courage here.
The main villain comes in the form of JYU SHIN-TA (Ryu Seung-ryong), a fearsome leader of an elite group of Qing soldiers. He’s not a mustache-twirling villain (like some of the Qing soldiers prove to be) and provides a nuanced performance that’s honestly surprising to see given the constraints of his character. For one, there’s no real way to paint him in a good light, but he gets his moment to prove that there’s a human within him. Two, in order to preserve authenticity, all soldiers on the Qing side speak Manchu (their dialogue is subtitled in Hangul) – which is a feat, considering that Manchu is sixty-native-speakers away from becoming a dead language.
He has this way of looking completely uninterested even as he’s watching unspeakable cruelties that strikes fear into your heart, and I get the impression that this is all just business for him. That is, of course, until his men start getting picked off by Nam-yi’s bow, which propels their conflict into a more personal one. More than a desire to win for Qing, Shin-ta’s quest to kill Nam-yi becomes more like a revenge mission and a contest, as Nam-yi continues to outsmart him and evade capture.
The slow procession of weeping hostages is undercut by a caption telling us about the fate of King Injo, along with some numerical facts – that 500,000 people from Joseon were captured as hostages, with countless numbers dying from the abuse and the march. There’s a moment where Ja-in remains silent in a line of weeping women whose cries reach a crescendo as they look far away and see their village behind them, knowing that they’ll never return.
Seo-goon ends up separated from Ja-in as he’s led into a separate hostage procession, presided over by a cruel and merciless Qing soldier whose sport is killing. He employs a local translator to tell the people to run back home if they want to – the choice is theirs. The translator shows loyalty to his people by mistranslating purposefully, as he warns them not to do what they’re told. Unfortunately, some of the desperate captives make a run for it, and end up getting hunted down by Qing soldiers.
This gives Seo-goon his moment of great glory, as this previously unassuming nice guy lures and kills a Qing soldier so that he has a weapon in order to kill more of them. Even in the midst of all this slow motion glory, there’s a dash of dark humor as one of the Qing soldiers finds himself too short to kick Seo-goon, tipping the scales so Seo-goon wins the fight.
Nam-yi arrives on horseback, having found Seo-goon’s location by threatening a Qing soldier in the forest. He’s seen the ghost town left behind by the Manchu army, and his presence quickly becomes known to Shin-ta, who has never seen an archer like him in Joseon. Weirdly enough, the Qing soldier that Nam-yi let survive in order to send a message to Shin-ta tells the leader that Nam-yi said “killing is not the purpose of his bow.” It strikes me as a strange line, because even if that’s not his bow’s purpose, all he’s been doing with it is killing. If that line is meant to paint him in a nobler light it’s unnecessary and a little too on the nose – I certainly don’t blame him for the killing he’s doing.
With Seo-goon’s bravery and Nam-yi’s bow, the hostages have a beautiful moment in which they rise up against their Qing captors and overtake them. I get goosebumps just writing about it – it’s a small victory for sure, but a cathartic one.
Now with Seo-goon and two men from his village, Nam-yi sets off after the royal guard unit where Ja-in has been taken. Shin-ta, aware of this due to the soldier that Nam-yi left alive, drops everything in order to pursue him.
Ja-in is being kept in a line of women who she sees being dragged off, one by one, so that they can presumably be raped. The chief rapist is DORGON (Park Ki-woong), a Manchu prince who – to put it simply – is a huge tool. Next to him Shin-ta seems like a nice guy, because at least he doesn’t seem to take such joy in cruelty. We encounter the ‘bathe her and bring her to me’ trope common of villains when he chooses Ja-in as his next victim – and is even amused when she bravely grabs a sword to defend herself. He finds her will to live fun, and there’s something about the childlike quality with which he’s portrayed that makes me want to slap that grin off his face, in a good way. He clearly doesn’t see anything he’s doing as even remotely wrong.
She gains herself a temporary reprieve when she proves that she can speak Manchu, asking Dorgon to spare her from such shame because she’s a married woman. “Even your king has submitted, and you think this is shameful?” Dorgon asks her. Their dialogue is electric as it becomes clear that Dorgon finds Ja-in amusing enough to keep around, although he still orders her to be tied to a post outside until she pleads for mercy.
Ja-in wins brownie points for her spirit, and her will to fight and live comes as natural to her as breathing. It’s a nice carryover from the prologue we had of them as children, since she’s proven herself brave, if not a little foolhardy. Dorgon brings up the recurring motif of a tiger in that he’s wearing tiger skin (gifted to him by none other than his uncle, our other villain, Shin-ta), which has protected him from cold and fire… which is a nice little tie-in to the fate waiting for him.
Nam-yi and Company come upon the camp from a hilltop vantage point – and though they can see Ja-in tied up outside, Nam-yi keeps his wits about him. They’re already vastly outnumbered as it is, but nightfall will give them their best advantage. His plan is simple, in theory: capture the prince so that they can exchange him with Ja-in.
We find Ja-in back in Dorgon’s tent at night, looking determined as she wolfs down skewered meat. Dorgon finds this laughable and mocks her for her womanly inconsistency – what made her break down so easily? Hunger? Thirst? Or despair?
In a triumphant moment, Ja-in explains that her father always told her to eat before a fight, since hunger dulls the senses. “I am the daughter of a warrior,” she proclaims. “I don’t live just to live and die just to die!” She then uses the meat skewer as a weapon against the prince, only furthering the fact that she is made of epic win.
Ja-in and Dorgon have a brutal fight where the skewer ends up about an inch away from his eye. It only becomes more extreme as he tries to subdue her enough to rip her clothes off, but even without a weapon she fights with her teeth. My kind of heroine.
So when Nam-yi emerges from the shadows of the tent, having successfully infiltrated the camp, it’s gratifying to see real fear come into Dorgon’s eyes. Seo-goon comes to collect Ja-in while Nam-yi holds Dorgon and his soldiers hostage long enough to assure his sister’s escape. The death of Dorgon at Nam-yi’s hands (did anyone order roast prince?) propels us into the second half of the film. Though the entire movie has been like one long chase scene, now it’s Nam-yi on the run from Shin-ta – who’s now seeking vengeance not only for his men, but for the death of his nephew.
Because the second half of the movie is one long chase scene, there’s a great deal of effort put into keeping it engaging and interesting. All of that effort pays off, as the score keeps working to heighten the tension as Shin-ta and his soldiers follow Nam-yi by jumping from cliff to cliff, leading to the first human moment we see from Shin-ta (and one that Nam-yi sees as well). Shin-ta’s human moment affords two things: more character insight, and a way to extend their fight further because of warrior ethics.
There are some missteps, though – and one comes most notably in a deus ex machina. Though we’ve heard of tigers and tiger dens since the beginning of the movie, our hero combines his wits against the superior number of men he’s facing, left to depend only on fate and the hope that he’ll be aided in his noble quest… by a tiger, who tips the scales in his favor by attacking Shin-ta’s forces. The moment inevitably feels a little like a let down because of its sheer improbability (one can argue that the successful infiltration of a Qing encampment by four men is improbable, but that was at least based on their efforts) and the dependence Nam-yi puts on forces completely beyond his control. Also, with the whole movie looking so beautiful, the poorly-done CGI tiger just feels a little out of place.
Even though our characters aren’t under a specific ticking clock, it’s the very urgency awarded to the hunter and the hunted that makes this fight among men so compelling. The dialogue between characters begins to wane as the movie goes on, replaced by the sound of breathing and bowstrings being tightened. Nam-yi finds himself at a disadvantage against the Qing arrow, which is a heavy beast capable of splitting wood. To that effect, the conflict is closely quartered despite the inherent distance needed to fire a bow and arrow, and in lieu of a score we get more silence, all the more punctuated whenever Nam-yi readies an arrow to make a killing blow.
It’s rare that I take such notice of sound design in a movie, since that’s normally something that just washes over me and is swiftly forgotten. That’s nearly impossible to do here, where the sound is so crystal-clear in the midst of an unobtrusive score that it makes me wish I had seen the movie in theaters. Even the sound of brush crunching under Qing boots as they get closer and closer to our hero is enough to make one’s heart race, because we’re right there with him, anxiously waiting to see how he’ll overcome.
For anyone that enjoys a good hero story, action film, or sageuk (and in this case, it’s all three things rolled into one) where the plot begins and ends won’t come as a surprise. In fact, most of the plot turns within the story won’t come as a surprise either – so it’s not necessarily even how we get there, as much as how well we get there. It’s almost a mystery to me how this movie didn’t emerge as just empty action, because all the pitfalls were there waiting – with near-insufficient time to develop the characters before they’re thrust into the heat of action, and a lot of time spent while our characters are separated from each other.
I don’t have a high-brow way to explain it save for the fact that some movies just have that magic sprinkling of epic dust, and you can usually tell pretty early on when that epic dust isn’t there. That being said, while I found Park Hae-il extremely compelling, I was never as on board for his character as I wanted to be. He worked perfectly for the role and made me believe that he was a master archer, but the strong emotional tie just wasn’t there. Admittedly it’s hard to accomplish when the hero is essentially on the run from the moment one (whether from the government or from Qing soldiers), and he had long strings of silence to contend with. While I welcomed the lack of monologuing, he could have been better served with more lines. I certainly wasn’t underwhelmed with his acting, I just wasn’t overwhelmed. But maybe that’s part of the charm, in that he’s not a scene-stealer.
Moon Chae-won was my favorite find of the movie, and it certainly didn’t hurt that her character was so well-written. I was first exposed to her in Brilliant Legacy (which left no real impression), and saw her most recently in The Princess’ Man, where she was a little shaky on her sageuk feet but proved a rising star. Here, I loved every second she was on screen, and hope that her role will set a new bar for sageuk heroines. If only they could all be so badass.
And of course, Ryu Seung-ryong was great. I mentioned praise above but it’s worth repeating here – he brought an antagonist to life that we could hate without really hating, that made us doubt our initial perceptions when he struggled to save his already-dead comrade from falling down a cliff. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse when I say that so many things could have gone wrong in this movie – like Ryu Seung-ryong’s character, for instance – so everything rested on the execution.
On that note, I couldn’t help but gape in awe at some of the shots in this movie – the cinematography is excellent, and like the score, it isn’t obtrusive. I was surprised to find that director Kim Han-min’s filmography consists of only three films, none of which I’ve seen before. However, they all seem to share the same dark tone and sense of thrill, with his 2007 movie Paradise Murdered also starring Park Hae-il. I’m a great deal more inclined to keep my eye out for this director in the future, because this movie was just plain beautiful to watch.
Because of the title, and because of Nam-yi’s weapon of choice, we’re obviously ready to see a lot of bows and arrows. But I have to give props again to the execution, editing, and CGI (aside from that tiger) – because each new arrow shot remained as equally compelling as the last. To keep up a supremely long bow-and-arrow fight takes technical wizardry, as we saw firsthand with the way Nam-yi would assess and reassess his surroundings – even taking into account the direction of the wind – in order to best his opponents.
The bottom line: A riveting tale of one man’s journey to save his last remaining family member set against the cruel backdrop of war. Being an action film first and foremost, it’s not for the faint of heart – even though it’s heavier on the glory than it is on the blood and guts. That being said, there’s a lot of arrow-on-neck action, so that’s something to look out for. Beautifully shot, tightly edited, and well-acted, it’s a sight to behold and a story to be experienced. Try it out, you’d be hard pressed to regret it.