My introduction to modern Korean cinema was a crash course facilitated by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was a Netflix style rental-by-mail service (with blue envelopes) that concentrated on foreign and non-Region 1 DVD releases. Within the span of a couple of weeks, I rented and burned through probably half a dozen Korean films, including Shiri, Nowhere to Hide, something with a lot of electric guitars and flying swordsmen, and Arahan. I didn’t know much about any of the films and was picking them largely on “that title/cover/plot synopsis sounds OK” with occasional input from some fo the few English-language websites that wrote about Korean cinema. Each of them proved to be very impressive in their own way, and while Shiri emerged as my favorite and Nowhere to Hide was the most visually striking, Arahan also earned a special place in my heart with its blend of urban setting, martial arts action, fantasy elements, and ridiculous comedy.
With almost a decade having elapsed since I first (and last) watched it, I thought it was time to revisit the slew of films that served as my gateway to Korean film and so started with Arahan. Revisiting it with a more seasoned eye, Arahan is still a lot of fun — but it’s not as much fun as I remembered, and some of the comedy proved to be a lot more irritating the second time around. Much of the blame for that falls on poor Ryoo Seung-beom, or rather on his character of Sang-hwan, who is the typical “hopeless slob who discovers the power within.” Ryoo fulfills the role well — perhaps too well — and while the script excels at exploiting his sad sack dopiness, it forgets to give him the sort of mitigating positive personality aspects that would offset his goofiness.
Anyway, as mentioned, Ryoo (The Berlin File, Bloody Tie) plays Sang-hwan, a loser rookie cop with no social skills, no real fighting skills, and very little to back up his belief that cops should be righteous and honest instead of bowing to gangsters and scummy politicians. His life changes when he has an accidental meeting with shop girl Wi-jin (Yoon So-yi), who apart from working in a convenience store is also a super-powered martial arts avenger who uses her bathroom breaks at work to leap from rooftop to rooftop, run up and down the sides of buildings, and apprehend criminals that cross her path. When she accidentally wounds the hapless Sang-hwan, she takes him to her father (Ahn Sung-kee, Nowhere to Hide, Sector 7) for healing. It turns out old Ja-woon is one of the five Seven Grandmasters who keep the flame of mystical tao martial arts alive in the modern world, and Sang-hwan happens to be a young man with an incredible amount of heroic chi.
The “slob is secretly The Chosen One” plot is perhaps the most overused contrivance in modern fantasy cinema, and it has been interpreted into a number of different scenarios, including the Japanese fascination with comic books and anime about a total loser who somehow enamors a harem of beautiful and powerful women who will squabble and fight over the right to make themselves the subject of the “hero’s” social awkwardness, clumsy sexual assaults, and so on. Sang-hwan is cut from just such a mold. Since Korean cinema rarely looks to deliver anything but exactly what you expect, Sang-hwan is predictably uncomfortable and uncouth, cluelessly staring at Wi-jin’s chest, breathing through his mouth, talking with his mouth full of food, and constantly complaining that the five Seven Grandmasters who have decided to train him aren’t teaching him the way he wants. This portion of the movie can wear on the viewer’s patience.
The script should be giving us a little something more to root for in Sang-hwan other than “he’s the Chosen One,” but he never really gets very much — or any — character redemption. He’s a lunkheaded, inconsiderate buffoon when we meet him, and he remains as such throughout the movie. For most of the time he’s on-screen, I was wishing he would just get shuffled to the background in favor of Wi-jin, who is a much more interesting and heroic character with better development (and better track suits). Luckily, Sang-hwan’s “dumb stare” antics are interspersed with some pretty good training sequences and some comedy that actually does work — even if it’s the formulaic “I’m being heroic and awesome then trip over a curb or slam into a wall” sort of cheap humor on which these films rely. In between all that, we learn the fates of the two missing Grandmasters, one of whom choked while trying to summon peaceful chi during student riots in the 1960s, and another of which succumb to the desire to use violence to enforce peace and was imprisoned by the five remaining Grandmasters — until now, when an excavation unearths unleashes him and his fondness for long fur coats and leather pants.
Although the “Sang-hwan as a dope” hijinks test my patience, Arahan offers more than enough elsewhere for me to forgive its forays into slack-jawed shenanigans. The martial arts choreography is fantastic. Director Ryoo Seung-wan (City of Violence, The Berlin File) is perhaps the best action director working in Korea, and even a decade ago, his skill was obvious. Because of the fantasy elements, there’s some dodgy CG fighting and wirework, but those elements are countered by a huge amount of straight-forward, no-nonsense fighting. Ryoo Seung-beom, who had no formal training as an actor or fighter, looks fast and natural and is match blow-for-blow by Yoon So-yi and her awesome track suits. Korean choreography isn’t quite the equal of Hong Kong in its prime, but it’s still pretty damn good.
I also like just about any movie with the plot “old folks teach martial arts to the impetuous youth.” Arahan‘s cast of old-timers is great, relying more on comedy than pathos (where as the gold standard for this type of movie, Gallants, is a mix of both). I know most of the five Seven Grandmasters are familiar Korean faces, but since my education is still a work in progress, the only one I knew right away was Ahn Sung-kee. They’re all great, though, with the highlight being two of the Grandmasters hoping to drum up interest in pure martial arts by going onto a kungfu game show where they are asked to perform circus tricks like walking across light bulbs and splitting logs.
The other thing I really like is the film’s little asides about the number of ordinary, every day people whoa re secretly martial arts masters without even realizing it. The world has changed, it explains, and while the world isn’t full of martial arts warriors storming castles, it is full of high-rise construction workers who are unwitting masters of light body techniques, laborers who are masters of strength and balance skills, window washers who fearlessly scale skyscrapers. There’s a sweet sentiment about recognizing the extraordinary in the everyday, and at moments like this or when watching Wi-jin step out of a grocery store and glide effortlessly through the cityscape in pursuit of some criminal the film is much better at communicating this than when we are being bludgeoned over the head with Sang-hwan’s silliness. Overall, even though there was more about Arahan that annoyed me the second time around, I still really enjoyed the film a lot. I think it’s a great mix of modern martial arts, fantasy, and comedy. It’s light-hearted fun, and the missteps are easy for forgive once it kicks itself into gear.