The opening gala of the London Korean Film Festival was a more rambunctious affair than I remember even last year’s being, due in no small part to the sudden and unexpected entrance of SHINee (I was lucky enough to be two rows behind them, but many who had specially booked seats I gather were incandescent to have been re-seated!).
The main feature of the night, War of the Arrow (Kim Han-min)1, is a historical action film, set in 17th century Korea during and following a highly efficient and successful Manchu invasion. It is the highest-grossing film at the Korean box office so far this year, and the image of the lead Park Hae-Il, featured on the front page all the LKFF media and literature, was enough to whet my expectations. I do not see many Korean films, despite being a devotee of Korean culture, and generally feel on less familiar territory.
Nothing could have prepared me for the experience I ended up with that evening. The most memorable part of the film for me is a scene on the beach where the Korean prisoners mount a seemingly futile resistance against their captors. I can think of only two other films which have actually made me cry despite all attempts to maintain composure. In this case, for several days after the film, the impulse returned in full strength whenever I thought about the scene.
The main protagonist, an archer who embarks on a quest to save his sister and brother-in-law, was noted in the introduction by Tony Rayns as ‘not a typical action hero’, with a heart made heavy by the loss of his parents at a young age. However, his peculiarity is also visible in his approach to defending his home country. The story of the film concerns invasion and a mission behind enemy lines, and there is plenty of bloodshed. There are also two notable occasions when he spares the life of an enemy soldier. On the first occasion, upon being asked as to why, he gives the somewhat cryptic explanation, ‘My bow is not for killing’ is given.
The director explained in the Q&A section following the film that the word for ‘bow and arrow’ has two meanings, one of which is ‘to save life’. The bow was to be used to protect, not to kill, and interestingly, the director explained, this compassionate purpose extended to encompass not only the life of the people of Korea, but even the life of an enemy soldier, who on the second occasion was one who had sworn to make the hero ‘suffer to his last breath’.
A Korean acquaintance explained this nuance further to me, drawing my attention to the difference between two possible words for ‘sword’:
살인검 (살=kill, 인=human, 검=sword)
활인검 (활=save life, 인=human, 검=sword)
Although a weapon is made for the purpose of getting rid of the enemy, the student was traditionally taught to use the weapon for the purpose of saving life and protecting others, a mindset that is still found in martial arts. I do not think that it is found in all films that deal with resisting an invasion, and I suspect this is why I was so affected by it.
Indeed, it reminds me that Korea has never invaded another country, despite being invaded countless times. I think this makes ‘War of the Arrows’ far from being a pessimistic film, something that captures the essence of the Korean approach to the tragic necessity of war.
- Read about the historical background to the film (LKL, 29 September 2011)
- 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
- Also known as Arrow the Ultimate Weapon. The Korean title is 최종병기 활.