This relatively unheralded film turned out to be the biggest box office local film of the year in South Korea, beaten only by Tom Cruise and the latest Transformers film in the chart. Perhaps most surprising about its success is that a large portion of the dialogue is spoken in a virtually extinct Manchu language – so the mainstream audience in Seoul were confronted with subtitles as well as several onscreen titles explaining aspects of the history. If this makes War of the Arrows sound like a dry historical document, fear not. This is a lean and sinewy action thriller.
Korea in the Joseon period, 1623. A teenage boy and his young sister flee from Seoul after a coup d’état in which their father is killed as a loyal officer of the ousted ruler. The boy Nam-yi has been given his father’s bow and instructed to look after his sister Ja-in. They are taken in by one of their father’s friends in the mountains. Thirteen years later Ja-in decides that she can’t always live in hiding and decides to marry the son of their protector. Nam-yi doesn’t think much of this idea but is forced to accept her decision and prepares to leave. He is by now a cynical man and we get hints of his archery prowess. It looks like he will become a bitter warrior, a kind of Korean version of a ronin in a Japanese samurai film. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding when he has just left town, Manchu cavalry arrive and swiftly take possession of the area. This is the ‘Second Manchu invasion of Joseon Korea’ in 1636. Half a million Koreans are captured and marched away to Manchuria. Nam-yi is now a fugitive looking for his sister and displaying prodigious archery skills in his battles with the invaders. Eventually he will find himself up against a crack squad of Manchu mounted archers who he must overcome to rescue Nam-yi and her new husband.
A straightforward conventional action picture, this film demonstrates the strength of Korean Cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and overall presentation. Writer-director Kim Han-min previously directed two other genre films, both described as ‘thrillers’ on IMDB. War of the Arrows looks wonderful, the action sequences are exciting and there is a novelty (for me, at least) in the concentration on archery skills. I was very impressed by Park Hae-il as Nam-yi (having previously seen him in The Host). The actor does not resemble the usual action hero but he utilises all his skills to make the character convincing. The following excellent review on Koreanfilm.org says much more about the film from a more informed perspective. I agree with the comment that this is much more like a 1950s Hollywood Western in its focus on the characters and the hunt/chase than a conventional historical drama. I’m also interested in the comments about the choice of subject matter – the humiliating defeat of Korean forces during the Manchu invasion – and how this relates to the more typical choice of narratives that fit the ‘national popular’ categories (i.e. Korean War epics or films where the Japanese are the bad guys). The Koreanfilm.org review praises the film but criticises the ‘submission’ to the use of CGI and under current conventions of the action film. It suggests that more focus on the philosophy of the martial arts being practised in a Kurosawa Akira mode would have been a better bet. I’m not really in a position to comment on CGI but this alternative suggestion is one that I didn’t think of when watching the film, but on reflection it sounds an interesting idea.
I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in action films and East Asian Cinema more generally. Here’s the best trailer I could find (try to ignore the dreadful voiceover):
How can I begin to write about this Bollywood film? I went to see it because I know someone involved in the UK shoot and the story promised to be set on the West Coast mainline rail route which I travelled regularly in my youth. I’ve seen plenty of Indian films with UK-based sequences and two Hindi films wholly set in London, but in all these previous films the action has been more or less confined to Indian diasporic communities. Not so here.
Tezz is one of those Bollywood films that happily ‘borrows’ Hollywood plots (and plots from other film industries) and ‘mashes’ them up. Here the borrowed plot ideas come from Speed, Runaway Train, Unstoppable and numerous other films. The anti-hero played by popular ‘heavy’ Ajay Devgan (or ‘Devgn’ has he is now known) is an Indian engineer who has been brutally deported from the UK in very unlikely circumstances. His ‘revenge’ is to place a bomb on board a UK train in the hope of getting a large ransom payout from the UK authorities. But since this is Bollywood, there is also a sub-plot in which he will pay for the eye operation desperately needed by the brother of one of his co-conspirators. The tagline for the film is something like “This is not a terrorist movie”.
Bollywood tends to create imaginary worlds and this is an imaginary UK so we really shouldn’t be bothered by the geographical nonsense that is the train’s route from London to Glasgow. Nor should we be bothered by the fact that the principal characters defending the train are all Indians – the train controller (Boman Irani), the security chief (Anil Kapur) and a cruelly under-used Mohanlal as a police sergeant who just happens to be on the train. Obviously there would be no problem in them all being British Asians. My main question is why was this set in the UK? The plot requires that the train is scheduled to take 10 hours to get to Glasgow. The real journey time is only 5 hours. I can only assume that because journeys in India are so long, 10 hours makes more sense for an Indian audience. So, is this meant primarily for the ‘all India’ audience? I suspect that it won’t work for NRIs. I’ve seen references to a ‘bullet train’ and the film certainly tries to use architecture alongside the railway shots to create a sense of glamour. I presume that cost considerations (and possibly the pre-Olympics work) prevented them from shooting on the Eurostar line from London to the Channel tunnel – the only high-speed operation in the UK.
The film was made mostly in the UK with shoots in London, Birmingham and Glasgow (and some scenic rural footage) with interiors shot back in Bombay. On the plus side, I thought some of the action sequences on Glasgow streets and especially a chase along the canals of Birmingham worked very well. But then there are the songs. A few nostalgic shots of the central character’s UK romance and wedding before his deportation are easily integrated as a montage with a music accompaniment (quite a nice track by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan), but a spectacular night club dance sequence with Mallika Sherawat is simply inserted into the action to the embarrassment of all concerned. The inclusion of songs is now becoming a real problem for mainstream Bollywood – as if producers can’t decide whether they are necessary or not. I think that they don’t work here because the overall narrative doesn’t make sense. If the script had presented the underlying family melodrama in a more coherent way that would have helped. Several Indian reviewers have suggested that the basic premise is ludicrous.
Overall this is a film with a good pool of talented actors and some well-worked action sequences. Unfortunately the script is nonsense and the prolific veteran Malayali director Priyadarshan seems to have completely lost control of it and wasted the potential. My favourite bit of silliness seems to be based on a sight gag that dates back to Buster Keaton’s The General in 1926 – but this time conducted with a train travelling at 70 miles an hour! The film flopped badly in India and disappointed in the UK on a 42 screen release despite quite a strong promotional campaign with a Facebook page here.
Here’s a Hindi dubbed trailer for the Indian release: