Kim Han-min’s Arrow the Ultimate Weapon is a high-energy historical action flick which will get the London Korean Film Festival 2011 off to a rip-roaring start. Without revealing too much about the plot, suffice it to say that enough baddies get what they deserve to make you feel reasonably good on emerging from the cinema. And there’s certainly enough frenetic running around involved to keep the adrenalin flowing for a couple of hours after the final credits roll.
Director Kim Han-min, whose previous features are Paradise Murdered and Handphone, wanted to try something more historical in his third film, and chose this interesting period in the early 17th century. In the Q&A following the special preview screening on 16 September he suggested that it would be difficult for foreigners to understand the complexities of the historical period involved – or maybe, more charitably, he didn’t have time to describe the details in the brief time allotted. So, what is the historical background to Arrow, and is there any relevance to us today?
The story opens with the vindictive attack on the house of a nobleman. It is 1623, the so-called “Restoration of Rectitude” when King Injo seized the throne from King Gwanghaegun. The nobleman under attack had served loyally under Gwanghaegun. The times were such that loyalty to the wrong man could get you killed. “Kill the Traitor!” shout the bloodthirsty assassins as they rampage through the nobleman’s house. And, “kill the traitor’s children!” It is the traitor’s children – who manage to escape to live under the protection of a relatively friendly family in Kaesong – who form the centrepiece of the story. But why were the family regarded as traitors?
The bloody feuds between different factions of the Confucian bureaucracy were a feature of Joseon history from the 16th Century onwards. The bloody literati purges which took place between 1498 and 1545 led many scholars to live quiet lives in the remote countryside rather than risk backing the wrong side at court. Topics for debate over the ages were different views about whether a true Confucian should dabble in “miscellaneous learning” such as agriculture and medicine or whether he should focus solely on the writings of an ancient Chinese sage who died more than 1,500 years previously; about whether one should support a dynasty (the Goryeo) that was on its last legs rather than being prepared to give support to a new one (the Joseon); and a particularly knotty problem about whether the Principle or the Material Force had greater prominence in the arcane hierarchy of Confucian metaphysics. In future centuries the argument would centre about the precise period of mourning appropriate for a deceased king who was not the eldest son. Arcane these arguments might seem, but they became intertwined with the clan and regional loyalties which were a feature of the Joseon court. In such an enclosed environment, any supporter of the opposite faction could be regarded as a traitor, particularly when he was on the losing side.
But in the context of Arrow the Ultimate Weapon, there were additional reasons why a courtier or scholar-official could be regarded as traitorous, and this was to do with the growing strength of the Manchu tribes.
King Gwanghaegun, who had effectively acted as regent during the devastating Japanese invasions (1592-98) once King Seonjo fled to Uiju on the border with Ming China, officially took the throne in 1608 on Seonjo’s death. Gwanghaegun had had a difficult task in rebuilding Korea – always the weaker nation squeezed between two stronger nations. The first task was to normalise relations with Japan, with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1607.
More problematic were the relations with the nations North and West of the Korean peninsula. It was the time of the emergence of the Manchus who increasingly threatened the Ming Dynasty. Joseon Korea owed a debt of gratitude to the Ming, who had supported Korea through the Japanese invasions. But it was obvious who the rising power was: the vulgar Manchu hordes, who ultimately overthrew the Ming and established themselves as the Qing dynasty in 1644.
Gwanghaegun was a pragmatist and sought to maintain friendly relations with the Manchus, despite also paying tribute to the Ming. Loyalty to the Ming obliged him to send a force of 13,000 to aid their campaign against the Manchus in 1619. The Korean contingent, headed by Kang Hong-nip was given instructions to be circumspect about committing themselves to battle, and in the end they surrendered to the Qing forces. Gwanghaegun then negotiated a bilateral peace with the Manchus.
To the ultra-conservative neo-Confucian faction in Joseon Korea, this was a betrayal of the Ming, and dissatisfaction with Gwanghaegun, particularly his pragmatic approach to the Manchus, ultimately led to the coup by King Injo in 1623.
Injo’s policy was resolutely pro Ming and anti-Manchu. The inevitable Manchu invasion followed in 1627. A temporary peace treaty was negotiated by Kang Hong-nip in 1627, but King Injo hadn’t learned his lesson. Kang was imprisoned for being too pro-Manchu, and when Manchu leader Taizong was proclaimed Qing emperor in 1636 Injo neglected to send his congratulations, and then refused to meet Taizong’s ambassador who was sent to find out why.
Taizong’s response was immediate, leading an invasion army of 100,000 the same year to ensure Joseon accepted its status as a vassal state. Even as the superior Manchu forces surrounded King Injo’s castle in Namhan mountain fortress there were serious debates as to whether negotiating with the Manchus was traitorous or not. Realism – and lack of food – finally brought Injo literally to his knees, and he finally cow-towed to the Manchu ruler in January 1637.
Joseon Korea was forced to pay an annual tribute to the Manchu court, to agree to send troops to support Qing action against the Ming, and to give two hostages to ensure good behaviour – one of whom was the crown prince Sohyeon. But even after having paid so heavy a price, Injo still pursued an anti-Manchu policy, spying on Sohyeon, who was suspected of going native. In fact, Sohyeon’s cosying up to the Manchus was designed to minimise the number of occasions that Joseon was called upon to supply troops for the ongoing skirmishes against the Ming. His diplomacy was funded by the labours of Joseon prisoners of war, who farmed and traded with the Manchu to raise funds for their patriotic cause. But trading and fraternising with the enemy was not looked upon favourably by the hard-line neo-Confucians back home. When Sohyeon returned to Joseon in 1645 he didn’t last long: within two months he died of poison.
Returning to the film, it is during the 1636 invasion that the “traitor’s” daughter is seized and taken away to a life of servitude in Manchuria, along with hundreds of other prisoners of war.
As the Korean prisoners prepare cross over a river – presumably the Yalu river – into Manchurian territory one of their leaders reminds them that anyone who crosses the river will be regarded as a traitor. And when our heroes cross back into Korean territory they again remind themselves that they will be regarded as somehow tainted.
In a world where a Crown Prince taken as an unwilling hostage to the Manchu court could be regarded as traitorous, it is perhaps credible that the prisoners in the film felt obliged to resist crossing the river into Manchu territory even though they didn’t have much choice in the matter.
Of course, even in modern times, crossing the Yalu River into China can be regarded as an act of treason which can lead to you being sent to a detention camp — to be held at the Dear Leader’s pleasure if you get caught. It would be a stretch to regard this policy as resulting from the sort of feeling of cultural and racial superiority to the Manchus which was behind Joseon Korea’s rejection of Qing China. But much more than Republic of Korea south the DMZ, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea inherits the isolationism inspired by the neo-Confucian Seoin faction which dominated the Joseon dynasty after King Injo’s coup of 1623.
So much for the history. How about the feelgood aspects of the film – because above all an action movie has to be about goodies against baddies. So, it falls to the plucky son of the assassinated official to try to rescue his sister from being ravaged by the evil Manchurian prince. Fortunately, he is an expert with the bow and arrow – a skill he was taught by his father. The tale is one of courageous, outnumbered Koreans winning out against enormous odds, outwitting and defeating the Chinese by their superior skills – and in the process earning the grudging respect of their foes: the baddies never expected such resilience or expertise from the craven Koreans (it will be remembered that King Injo moved his court to the safety of Ganghwa Island during the 1627 invasion rather than putting up a decent fight). Is this a message of hope for South Korea in the 21st century? A small nation with expert skills taking on, by their nimbleness and agility, the uncountable hordes of Chinese? There is no suggestion in Arrow the Ultimate Weapon that Joseon Korea can defeat Qing China; but tactical successes can win the grudging admiration of the Chinese.
Maybe that’s reading too much into the story. After all, this is just a well-made action flick. In the end, Arrow will soon be forgotten. Despite its box office success, it does not show the originality and invention of Korea’s more famous directors. But whenever I watch a Korean movie I’m on the lookout for what the film can tell me about Korea. This didn’t tell me all that much about Korea of today, but it inspired me to try to fit it into its historical context. As the director said in the Q&A, none of the events in the film actually happened, but he believed that the plot was essentially plausible. I’m not sure about the CGI tiger who only seemed to enjoy Manchu flesh, or the feasibility of leaping across a ravine and clinging on to the vertical rockface the other side without falling to one’s death; but enough elements of the plot fit into the historical framework that perhaps you can use the story as a starting point to explore an interesting period in Korea’s past.
- A period drama that doesn’t always shoot straight: ‘War of the Arrows’ got the hardware right, even if it invented plot and characters, Korea JoongAng Daily, 8 April 2019