Part II

Interview with Kim Han-min, director of War of the Arrows:
“It’s technically very difficult getting a tiger into a film”

Park Hae-il as the master archer Nam-Yi in War of the Arrows

Though little of this makes it into the final film, it is worth recalling the devastating impact of the Japanese invasions in the late sixteenth century. Intended to bring about the destabilisation of Ming China, this bitter war exposed the complacency of Chosŏn Korea, shocking the military leadership from its general malaise and arousing the ire of the elite classes (Confucianists and bureaucrats all) who demanded absolute immediate reform. Little changed, however, and the first Manchu invasion of 1627 exposed these weaknesses again. The second Manchu invasion of 1636-7 forced the Chosŏn state into a humiliating capitulation. It culminated finally in the establishment of tributary relations with the Ch’ing, thus ensuring Korean submission to China until remarkably well into the nineteenth century. Kim’s film draws on the almighty upheaval of this second invasion, and its interest, born of necessity, is in the spectacle not the story. In creating a resistance tale which turns on the promise of reunion between a brother (Nam-Yi) and sister (Ja-In, played by Moon Chae-won) separated by invasion, Kim shifts the narrative focus away from the Chosŏn state, its political structures and the collateral damage of war.

Despite this stripped-back, clipped-wing approach, his film touches on two key issues which make up for its curious love affair with the bow and arrow; both invite us to sympathise with its lead characters’ suffering on a personal as well as a political level. First, Ja-In and her fiancé are forced to make an impossible choice that damages irreparably their bond to the Korean nation-state. Second, the story of Nam-Yi, who is hell-bent on rescuing his sister from Prince Dorgon of the Ch’ing, negotiates the tension between ethnic difference and national identity.

Kim smiles when I broach the subject and he takes a moment. “Historically, Korea has frequently been invaded by the surrounding countries. At that point of suffering — where the people are oppressed and repressed — emerges a very determined spirit, a noble spirit. I wanted to create a simple story and drama, yet a powerful drama to convey this.” It is in this tension, this struggle between the oppressor and oppressed, the invader and prisoner-of-war, that War of the Arrows catches its most potent theme. The question that haunts Ja-In and other prisoners as they reach the Manchurian border — “Can we ever go back?” — reflects their deep-seated anxieties about the symbolic significance of crossing from one nation to the other. Here, border lines and identity are open questions. In one scene, as several hundred prisoners-of-war crawl along a hillside in the northern provinces, a high point-of-view shot shows the beauty of the wild and unprotected land they leave behind; treasures, as well as traditions, they are forced to abandon. In the film's closing stages the returning survivors, bloodied and exhausted, cross back into Korea not as heroes (who freed prisoners from servitude and almost certainly death), but as traitors, unprepared (and perhaps unfit) to die for their country. A coda claims there were no formal cases of repatriation.

Kim also stresses that many of his actors speak note-perfect Manchu, the official dynastic language, now endangered, of the Ch’ing which was seriously under threat as early as the eighteenth century. According to articles in China Daily, The New York Times and from Reuters a few dozen of the 10 million Manchu living in the north-eastern provinces and in Beijing today can speak the language fluently; Jin Yanshan, a delegate from Liaoning, explains it without any frills: “In my home village, the old people still use the odd word of Manchu, like for mother or father. That’s it. There is no environment for it.” Kim’s efforts to recover the language from the precious few primary schools and villages where it is still practised in north-east China lends some credibility to the claim that he is as much concerned with history and tradition as he is with arrows, gorge-jumping and Mexican stand-offs. Although little is made of the intercultural connection between Nam-Yi and his Manchurian arch rival, Jyu Shin-Ta (Ryoo Seung-yong), the merging of the two languages, Korean and Manchu, heightens the familial bond between the multilingual Nam-Yi and his sister (described as the “best archer in the Chosŏn dynasty” and “the beauty of the region” respectively in the English press book) with powerful reverberations. The film may verge towards generic convention here, but it draws attention to the demographic mixing of ethnic and social identities by expunging Nam-Yi and Ja-In’s “mysterious” mother from the narrative altogether. The subtext is as loud as the impact of one of Jyu Shin-Ta’s arrows.

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

But in fulfilling the demand to make plot, genre and characterisation more transparent for new audiences, Kim admits to taking a step back and reducing to a minimum the things that originally interested him: this includes of course some of the nuances of traditional ground archery. Adds Kim on this point: “Unfortunately it slowed the rhythm of the film, so this element, this focus, had to be more succinct and simplified.” In its theatrical form, these matters are subordinate to the key melodramatic thrust of the film which deepens our understanding of Nam-Yi as an outsider: the film emphasises the unavoidable fact that, as the descendant of a national traitor, Nam-Yi too is considered with suspicion and contempt; also emphasised is a sense of personal failure on Nam-Yi’s part — his mission to rescue Ja-In from the Manchurian Prince becomes a sort of hysterical antidote, as well as an opportunity to both honour the memory of his father and fulfil his duty as Ja-In’s protector. Though Kim speaks earnestly about turning in a schematic, well-paced melodrama (with far greater narrative redundancy than either of his previous features), his concern for stating this point the right way is revealing when set against his obvious enthusiasm for both the historical period (a huge cinematic subject in its own right) and for the tactics of short- and long-range archery.

On a technical level also, Kim has good reason to feel dissatisfied with a key digital effects sequence. As the elite Niru troop led by Jyu Shin-Ta pursue our hero up a rocky mountainside and into a box canyon with seemingly nowhere to go, a wild tiger repels their attack, tearing ruthlessly into their number and permitting Nam-Yi’s escape. Though it is regrettable that the digital effects team, working to a tight post-production schedule, produced such a hollow series of rendered images in the finished film, the apparently risk-averse Dasepo Club and DCG Plus (production and investment management companies respectively) voiced concerns early on in production about the entire sequence, and tried holding Kim back from shooting it altogether. “That was a very contentious issue,” he admits. “It was technically very difficult because the funding companies and investors were against it. But for me as the director, the thought of not having the tiger appearing in this picture, on the mountain top, was just ridiculous.” Indeed, the whole set-piece allows Kim to extend thematic connections of importance to his commentary on traditional virtue and morality. As elsewhere in East Asia, most obviously China, the tiger is a symbol of virtue and righteousness; in Korean folk belief specifically, the tiger has supernatural attributes connecting it to the Mountain Spirit; and in rituals, paintings and other art objects, it is portrayed as a mountain god, a sacred guardian, to which the oppressed, needy and diseased do turn. In the film, the scene’s sting-in-the-tail ending succeeds in unnerving Jyu Shin-Ta and the surviving men in his troop: the tiger’s attack on the Niro suggests that their ghoulish fate is just. So the scene is of importance not for its computer-generated, Gladiator-style spectacle, but because of what the tiger is shown doing. “Some of our national characteristics are strongly associated with the symbol of the tiger,” says Kim. “It’s an animal the Korean people have a lot of national respect for. So I was very persistent and stubborn about it, that’s why [this sequence] was included.”

Nam-Yi engages the Niru in a game of cat and mouse in War of the Arrows

For a moment I observe the standee board to Kim’s left, a stylised publicity shot of the star, Park Hae-il, brandishing a bow and arrow which he aims in our direction. It reminds me of a delicately handled training sequence in which the self-taught Nam-Yi walks beyond the long-range target at which his sister had earlier been aiming to reveal, directly concealed behind it, the target at which he has actually been firing, festooned with dozens and dozens of practice arrows. Nam-Yi has quietly perfected the skill of bending arrows through the air around rocks, trees and, but of course, enemies. It is a bone fide crowd-pleaser, tricksy, sped-up and fun. “Don’t you think arrows are more interesting than guns and knives?” Kim asks, shortly before wrapping. They can be, I say: in the world of guns at least there is a tangible difference between the strategic sniper fire of a film like Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001, USA/Ger./UK/Ire.) and the power-worshipping, meatheaded spectacle of a Stallone movie. Critics may suggest that War of the Arrows sits somewhere between the two in action terms, straddling the divide, but to its credit the film succeeds in creating a sense of entrapment that forces Nam-Yi to retaliate tactically; and at the height of the hero’s exhilarating revenge attacks on the Niro there’s no denying the thrill of watching a single CG-assisted arrow nailing an assailant cleanly behind his hostage . . . So this idea that Nam-Yi can bend an arrow through the air and take out someone in a single shot, is it possible? “I’m not going to tell you!” he says, and suddenly out comes that proud, freewheeling laugh again. “You will have to try it yourself.”

First place on the Honour Roll: director Kim Han-min. Warm thanks also to a jumble of people in the Korean Cultural Centre and the London Korean Film Festival Centre, including Paul Koren, and for her patience, Elizabeth from Margaret London. For doing her utmost to interpret my questions, big thanks and high praise to An Ji-yoon, resident translator at the LKFF. And thanking also Louise at Showbox for her help. This article was originally published by New Korean Cinema.

1 November, 2011


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