This movie blew me away, and if you're into historical action, foreign action, or just good action movies you can skip the review below, take my word for it, and go in 'fresh' like I did. Hopefully you'll enjoy it half as much as I did. If you have seen it, or need more convincing, read on...
Set during an occupation / invasion of Korea, the movie follows Nam-Yi, an archer who has led essentially a life of shame since his father was killed when he was a boy. When his sister is about to be married, Manchurians invade his village and make off with both his sister and his brother-in-law to-be, along with everyone else.
From this point on, the movie essentially kicks into overdrive. Nam-Yi feels a bit like John McClane at the start of the movie as he stumbles across enemy troops, but is able to kill a few off and elude capture. Like McClane he has a great character arc, and realizes he has to use his talents to help his compatriots who are being forced-marched to Manchuria under the cruel auspices of their captors. We see him go from a bitter, self-pitying waste at the start of the movie to a true hero by the end, and the journey does not feel forced or rushed.
The movie features numerous memorable action set pieces, from larger-scale invasions and village-slaughter, down to a tightly paced climax that seems to borrow from Apocalypto and First Blood, but still feels fresh. A scene with Nam-Yi trapped on the side of a cliff, with ten elite Manchurian guards on the other side, is particularly memorable and is one of the most pulse-pounding sequences I've seen in a while.
Any action movie needs good villians, and War of the Arrows does not disappoint. The Manchurians are great foils, memorable and not one-note or cartoony as many Asian flicks of this kind are. They are both skilled and clever; they realize the threat Nam-Yi poses, and immediately do not underestimate him but rather muster a crack group to track him down. Combined with the horrors we see the general Manchurian soldiers commit, there is a real visceral thrill and huge sense of satisfaction seeing the hero elude capture, aid his countrymen, and pick off his pursuers one-by-one.
I watched this movie on Netflix and the video quality was horrid. I can't wait to pick up a bluray copy and watch it again, and I think this is one that will be in my 'favorite movie' rotation for many years to come.