The Visual Kickass Appendix: War of the Arrows (2011)

From time to time, I find a movie that I feel can make some form of important contribution to rpgs in general or a campaign I'm running in specific; these movies form what I'd like to describe as a Visual Kickass Appendix, a sort of modern Appendix N of film.

The Basics 

War of the Arrows is a 2011 Korean film about, you guessed it, lots and lots of arrows. Well, more "that involves" than "is about." After some political backstabbery that didn't translate well into English (or maybe I just need to pay closer attention next time), a boy (Nam Yi) and his sister (Ja In) are orphaned after their father is branded a traitor and their house is attacked by what I assume are political rivals. As Nam Yi flees with Ja In in tow, their father gives Nam Yi a really fancy shortbow and tells him to protect her with it. The brother and sister take up residence with another noble house where Ja In predictably grows up to be the object of the house's heir's affections while Nam Yi takes his father's advice seriously and spends of his days out in the woods hunting with some drinking buddies, talking about how he's the son of a traitor (whether that's true or not, that's what everyone thinks), being generally disenfranchised and disaffected, and learning how to be deadly-ass accurate with that bow. Tragedy strikes (as it usually does) when Manchu (perhaps most correctly identified as Qing dynasty Chinese, although the movie takes some liberties with mixing Manchurian and Mongol tropes) invade during Ja In's wedding to [nameless heir] while Nam Yi is off sulking in the forest. Long story short, the Manchu take Ja In "prisoner" as a gift for a Manchu prince and Nam Yi goes after her. Action sequences ensue. Lots of people, both Manchu and Korean, die.

The Skinny

I watch a lot of martial arts movies, and I fully expected War of the Arrows to be just another one. Instead, what I got was an example of a trend I've been noticing in many of the current generation of action films: the action sequences are tight, heroic but not over-the-top, the plot exists to support the action but is actually watchable, and so on. Overall, these newer action films (such as the recent Conan reboot and John Carter) have done a great job of redefining the action film. While the exposition of the plot may only exist to drive the movie forward from one action sequence to the next, that plot is actually pretty well-written without being over dramatized or under imagined. What we get in those action sequences is of high quality, as well. I expected overblown and ridiculous Wuxia-style madness but instead got a pretty great treatment of the athleticism and artistry of archery that never slid into the touchy-feely-ness that some martial arts cinema messes around with. War of the Arrows is very much an adventure, and its bare-bones treatment of its subject matter reminded me of old school Swords & Sorcery fiction (minus the sorcery), sort of like a Conan with a bow instead of a sword (oh, and Korean instead of Cimmerian).

At The Gaming Table

Every player who ever thinks about playing an archer-type such as a Ranger should watch this one, that much is a given. Further, I found that, as a DM, there were a lot of little things I found that were very interesting, stuff you might ascribe to being campaign elements. The Manchu who invade Korea have a plan, and they stick to it. They use well-developed military tactics. Nam Yi and his hunting buddies use small unit guerrilla tactics against the Manchu. One of the Manchu's most prized possessions is a strategic map which they use to coordinate many different units at a time. The real antagonist isn't the rapist prince but instead the general who does his bidding. Stuff like this make the movie a goldmine; not necessarily for stuff that you couldn't come up with on your own, but to see how it can all be put together in a cohesive whole that takes a movie that didn't need an awesome plot and dresses it up in the duds of a movie that has one. The lesson I ended up taking away from this film was: even when running a lengthy dungeon crawl or series of back-to-back encounters, it pays to not skimp on the details.

In the end, War of the Arrows was good Sword & Sorcery minus the sorcery. It was grim, it was gritty, sacrifices were made, prices were paid, and the protagonist ultimately triumphed at great cost. My wife came in at about the ten minute mark and needed a small (very small at that point) amount of catching up but ended up really enjoying it, too. You can find this one on Netflix (as of this writing), meaning (assuming you subscribe), your only investment is time and this is one investment that pays off big.