Part I

Interview with Kim Han-min, director of War of the Arrows:
“It’s technically very difficult getting a tiger into a film.”
“It was the one military practice, the one token of martial skill, which ever held its own among a people who for thousands of years have preferred silks, pictures, poems and music, the stately crane in the paddy fields and the knarled [sic] pine on the mountainside.”
—Historian J. L. Boots on Korean archery, from Korean Weapons and Armour
Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
, December 1934

Having made it through to the semi-finals of the national championships, successful young target shooter Park Nam-joo is ready to blow her chances in a playoff against Olympic Gold medallist Yun Ok-hee. She can see the counter on the red timing clock ticking over fast, but her breathing is all wrong, and the only thing that concerns her now is holding position to regain her rhythm. But she buckles and breaks stance. No mistaking that reaction. At full draw again, arrow tethered and ready for release, the counter hits zero and she’s left staring in disbelief at the target . . . “She failed!” croak the announcers; and then a blizzard of criticisms pinpointing her rotten sense of timing in shootoffs. The tournament’s over for Park Nam-joo. Returning to her family, tear-stricken and breathing heavily, she presents her runners-up medal to a photograph of her missing thirteen year-old niece, a bright young thing who within minutes of Nam-joo’s defeat had been whisked off by a shambling mutant fish-beast from the Han river and presumably drowned en route to the banks lining the far side. Sobbing, pained, exhausted, the Park family unite behind Nam-joo in filial piety. “It’s bronze,” her brother says to the photograph, wiping aside his tears. “Bronze!” And then the weeping grandfather: “Your aunt brought you a . . .” his voice breaking, bone in his throat, “. . . a bronze medal.” Then follow hysterics and misery like you have never seen.

If it is widely known that archery is practically Korea’s national sport, it is also known that Korean coaches try not to do anything halfway . . . Passing on to your missing thirteen year-old niece the news that her bright and talented aunt Nam-joo has returned from the national championships a bronze medallist is about as pale and meaningless a piece of information as telling your ancestors there is a new Barbara Streisand album in the works. And if the reality is indeed very different, then many in the West can be forgiven for assuming that a bronze in Korean archery is someone’s idea of a bad joke. One reason why this sequence from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Goemul, 2006) is so cutting is that it embraces precisely this heritage and uses it to frame the Park family’s inadequacies. This opening line from a New York Times article about the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 gets right to the heart of it: “The South Korean women started Sunday by smashing the world record and then got what they really came to the Olympics to get, what they always come to get: the archery team gold.”

What they always come to get.

Park Hae-il, as master archer Nam-Yi, readies an arrow using a three finger under case grip in War of the Arrows

There is no reason why I should have spent time after my interview with director Kim Han-min thinking of this scene specifically. Set in the middle of the seventeenth century, when Chosŏn Korea was invaded by the Manchu for the second time in ten years, Kim’s propulsive, whiz-bang historical/action drama War of the Arrows has nothing to do with the national championships or target shooting in modern Korea. It instead condenses a savage and traumatic historical event into a punchy and poignant return-of-the-hero tale. But in its last few moments our conversation switched to the broader subject of Korean archery as tradition, and it is precisely because there was not enough time to get seriously into the thing that I left with this perspective.

Kim has said he considers the bow and arrow to be the vital element of his film. It is a pitch I hear first hand in interview — “I wanted to make a historical drama which introduced and focused on the arrow and the bow” — and again later at the press screening where he fields questions from the audience. I had planned originally to de-emphasise this aspect of the film for our discussion, feeling that if War of the Arrows should be viewed as anything then it shouldn’t be as, primarily, a “bow and arrow movie” (especially in light of the marketing push). But then Kim observes, with some pride, that like thousands of other children in South Korea he was taught archery in his junior years (archery is taught at elementary school, high-school and college level by designated coaches who spend between three and six months running drills); that the sound of an arrow striking its target left an indelible impression on him — and with that he cuts right through the one-dimensional note of the marketing message and has my attention.

This exciting contemporary form, he says, is directly rooted in a long and excellent tradition which extends back to Chosŏn Korea. His assertion that “the arrow and bow is one of the [few] iconic symbols that hasn’t been severed from history,” in fact, pinpoints the thinking behind, among others, Yun Ok-hee’s own public attempts to promote the historical legacy of Korean archery. Yun, whose F.I.T.A. world ranking has floated consistently between first and third place since 2006, argues that the achievements of Korean archers in Olympic and world championships is evidence of this legacy: “Our sensitive fingertips handed down from our ancestors and our spiritual strength and willingness to fight to the very end are our secrets.” Set in this context, then, Kim’s film might even be viewed as a tribute.

Director Kim Han-min at the London Korean Cultural Centre (photo I London)

We’re holding the interview in the library corner of the Korean Cultural Centre at a time when the film’s total ticket sales are 450,000 shy of Sunny (Sseoni, 2011), the friendships-and-terminal-illness tale from writer-director Kang Hyung-chul which has mushroomed beyond anything we might have expected and currently holds the top spot for biggest domestic draw of the year. Within the month, War of the Arrows will pass the 7.4 million admissions mark, moving it safely out of the commercial blockbusters zone but still short of the sort of numbers racked up by the disaster phenomenon Haeundae (aka., Tidal Wave, 2009) and the 2008 sleeper comedy Scandal Makers (aka., Speed Scandal, Gwasokseukaendeul). But the train doesn’t stop there. At this point, Kim and his sales team are skilfully carving out an international platform for the film that will take it from London to the States, where it’s set to play in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Dallas; to Canada where it’s confirmed in Toronto and Vancouver; and then back here for the festival stint where it opens the London Korean Film Festival in November.

Which is nice for Kim, and good for K.O.F.I.C., the state-supported organisation responsible for promoting Korean films abroad and supplying the majority of us in the west with information . . . But all of this has an effect on the realities of interviewing. With War of the Arrows imagery everywhere and PR staff politely hustling, Kim has the confidence and edge of a man who has turned a full-bore, 100-day long, multi-million dollar production into possibly the year’s single biggest attraction at the Korean multiplex. “The amount of pressure was immense,” admits the director. “I started filming in February this year and had to finish on June 9 for an August 10 release date.” While principal photography is usually shorter for Korean films — obviously this part of the production process was very much influenced by the unique aesthetic and technical demands, as well as economic factors, of the historical film; by contrast, typical productions can be turned around in well under twelve weeks — there is no question at all that War of the Arrows’ post-production period was alarmingly short, even with the benefits of Korea’s growing post-production services and industry. “It was an incredibly short period of time, it required very clear and succinct communication with a lot of different people. I received help from specialist members of staff and liaised with the special effects departments very closely. The pressure was huge, but I was very lucky to have met such good crew members this year — sometimes they came up with better ideas than me so this made things easier!” A Korea Times piece on War of the Arrows, published in August (‘Arrows aims for new horizons’), gives the impression that the film’s production budget was low; this is true of historical films produced in the globalised Hollywood system but not in the current Korean industry where lavish budgets on the scale of I Saw the Devil (Angmareul Boatda, 2010) are exceptionally rare. In 2010, the average production budget, excluding prints and advertising, was KW 1.42 billion (US$1.2 million); by contrast, Kim’s film, earmarked from the start as a big-budget historical production, cost KW 9 billion (US$8.5 million). I quote this information to Kim, primarily because it is worth getting confirmation on production budgets at every unusual opportunity but also because I want to test The Korea Times’ contention that a US$8-9 million budget should be restrictive at all in the current Korean film industry. Kim laughs. “There was nothing I couldn’t do with that money. If it was a bit more I could maybe have looked after the staff a bit better . . .”

Moon Chae-won as Ja-in, sister to Na-mi, on the day of her wedding

Kim seems to prefer writing and directing his own projects. Though he has worked with other screenwriters — on his short-film debut Sympathy (Yeonmin, 1998) and then again on his second feature, the occasionally daffy blackmail thriller Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009), written by Kim Mi-hyun — his self-authored output has performed more respectably at the box office and garnered local festival awards. To date he has written and directed the short films Sunflower Blues (1999) and Three Hungry Brothers (Galchiguidam, 2003), his feature debut Paradise Murdered, aka. Paradise 1986 (Geukrakdo Salinsageon, 2007), which made the top best selling films list in the year of its release, and of course War of the Arrows. “My first priority and main job is directing. It is a bit unfortunate that I can’t find a like-minded writer, I just end up doing the job myself . . . Strangely, the films where I’ve had another writer onboard, like Handphone, were not the ones that were commercially successful. I’ve been mulling that point over recently, to see what that’s about.”

Park Sol-mi as teacher Jang Gwi-nam — a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2007 Blue Dragon Film Awards — in Kim Han-min’s debut feature Paradise Murdered (Geukradko Salinsageon, 2007)

Jeong Yi-gyu (Park Yong-woo) pesters entertainment agency rep Oh Seung-min (Eom Tae-woong) in Handphone (Haendeupon, 2009)

Paradise Murdered and Handphone were received as “serious” thriller mysteries, attracting a more sophisticated audience than your typical adolescent, though on reflection both films surprise with their dark comic register. Consider one early sequence in Paradise Murdered. The surviving residents on Geukrak Island have all assembled in an empty schoolroom to discuss the recent murders of two locals and the unexplained disappearance of a third, Deok-su. En passant, Kim for no apparent reason inserts a gaggle of vignettes which would not look out of place in a Daffy Duck cartoon: an elasticised killer in wetsuit, white gloves and a snorkel tossing a bright red body-bag into the ocean; in the next, the same man seen from overhead, this time tunnelling out a six-foot burial plot for the tied-up, not-yet-dead corpse itching for freedom nearby; and the punchline has a pair of (apparently) conjoined rocks sprouting from the blue sea, a spiralling arrow pointing down towards them and the accompanying caption: “Deok-su’s ass.” Gamely overturning the dramatic pace and structure of the schoolroom scene in this manner, Kim flits schizophrenically between, on the one hand, suspenseful half-sinister debate and, on the other, the tempestuous exertions of an anonymous killer with all the wit and grace of a Chuck Jones villain. On the subject of Paradise Murdered, I ask about this scene and if, given that the entire film must bear his stamp as a writer-director, he feels that any of this madcap zaniness channels his personal idiosyncrasies. After hearing the translation, he belts out the sort of laugh which is probably heard at the far end of the building and maybe in reception too. Settling back with a broad, mischievous grin, he replies simply: “Most definitely yes.” But as he is prone to do on the publicity circuit he launches immediately into a direct question of his own, pointing to a scene in his new film — in which our dazed hero Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il), having engaged his prospective brother-in-law (Kim Mu-yeol) in a drunken, sprawling tavern fight, is compelled to yield, and then vomits all over his opponent’s face — and asking if it does roughly the same trick.

Moments earlier Kim asked another pointed question, this time about the different weapon systems used in his film by the Ch’ing and Chosŏn dynasty armies, and the subtle variations within these systems. He evidently enjoys asking the questions. More than being civil or reserved in interview, Kim seems genuinely interested in finding out what you have to say to him in this short, sharp time slot; not for nothing does he want to understand how well the film — its nationalist themes and archetypes — plays with an international audience: this is, lest we forget, the most well-publicised Korean blockbuster of the year. It’s an instinct which shines later at the festival press launch, where he implores a hundred journalists, embassy staff, hotel and theatre personnel, event organisers and excitable young film geeks to bring any film-specific questions right up to him in person once the grim, for being so formal, business of the onstage Q & A is over. To this end, he succeeds in charming the audience, speaking with a humility and confidence that engages us all, but I wonder how far any of this goes in serving his contention that War of the Arrows is “a deep and meaningful film.”

1 November, 2011
Part II


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