Monday, October 10, 2022

Arahan (Korea, 2004)

"Many skilled people reach the state of master without knowing. There are countless masters today. They've just adjusted to a changing world, but most are Tao disciples who fight against evil c'hi. The Seven Masters seek a leader among such people, who can restore the flow of pure c'hi to the world."
Wi-jin (Yoon So-yi)
19-year-old Korean model Yoon So-yi, who plays the young and beautiful martial arts master student Wi-jin in the fun but fluffy urban martial arts fantasy Arahan, made her film debut in this movie. The quote above is from a dryly funny scene, one of many, in which she attempts to explain the power of Tao and c'hi to the doofus Sang-hwan (24-year-old Ryoo Seung-bum, brother of the film's director, Ryoo Seung-wan). For most of the film, neither she nor the surviving five masters of the Seven Masters have much luck at teaching Sang-hwan, a clumsy and dorky rookie cop, that there is more to becoming a master than just fighting. Were it not for Ja-woon (Ahn "The Nation's Actor" Sung-ki of Nowhere to Hide [1999], Sector 7 [2011 / trailer] and The Divine Fury [2019 / trailer]), Sang-hwan's father and top master of the Tao school led by the surviving five of the Seven Masters, Sang-hwan would be back on the beat to nowhere. But Ja-woon is convinced that within the clumsy loser there is an untapped c'hi of superpower potential... something that the in-reality Five Masters definitely need when, after eons and eons and eons, the wayward Master Heuk-woon (38-year-old top martial arts choreographer Jung Doo-hong — see: The Good, the Bad, the Weird [2008 / trailer]) is unexpectedly released from his underground prison and sets out on his mission: to procure the mighty key to the ultimate spiritual state of Arahan, which imbues one with unstoppable power, so as to take over the world.
Trailer to
If it sounds like a comic book, that is because it, once upon a time, was. The third feature-length directorial project of the genre-twisting genre director Ryoo Seung-wan is based on the South Korean comic of the same name, once highly popular in its land of origin but even more unknown outside Korea than this film. Whether or not Arahan the film is a decent or faithful adaptation of Arahan the comic book, we know not, but we do know that Arahan the film is a pretty fun and fluffy movie that makes for some enjoyable viewing. Despite all its Taoist trappings, the movie is anything but serious: it is an urban martial arts comedy that needless to say might not measure up even mildly to the apogee of martial arts comedies, the big budget Chinese period-set masterpiece that is Kung Fu Hustle (2004 / trailer), but nevertheless keeps the viewer fully immersed and entertained for around 110 funny, action-heavy, and at times even sad minutes. 
That Arahan has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek is already made clear in the movie's opening scene, in which the surviving Masters, almost all overweight and unfit, complain, while smoking endless cigarettes and drinking heavily sugared tea, about the current state of Tao and the financial ruin they and their Taoist school soon will face. Time to turn to TV to get new students. (That alone already shows how old the film is: Faceook, Instagram and Twitter are never even brought up as an option.)
But before the show can go on, proto-superheroine Wi-jin's badly aimed power thrust, meant for a motorcycle-riding purse-snatcher, brings Sang-hwan to their attention: he has the power, but is too stupid to see it himself. Ryoo Seung-bum, who plays the naive Sang-hwan, has supposedly become one of Korea's top, younger actors. As Sang-hwan, he does a good job at segueing between clumsy doofusness and butt-kicking action man, sometimes doing both at the same time, but his occasionally almost stalker-like mentality and (non-violent) incel behavior, as well as his subsequent cockiness, does require some teeth-gritting to overlook.
For that, however, he does have an infectious smile and handles the physical comedy just as well as he does the terrific fight scenes. And he also has some pretty good chemistry with his co-star Wi-jin, who for much of the movie kicks ass better than Sang-hwan and always remains a likeable and relatable person. (Okay, we'll admit it: she is also some really tasty kimchi and presses all our cis-gender buttons. In any event, we really would love to see her follow-up movie, the wuxia Shadowless Sword [2005 / trailer]... or, for that matter, her later horror movie, Midnight Garage [2015 / trailer].)
Actually, the cast of Arahan is excellent across the board. Even the minor masters, regardless of how brief their time onscreen might be, embody their roles well in appearance, presence, dialogue, and actions. Played usually for laughs, they nevertheless are never truly embarrassing, even when failing and flailing on a television variety show. And when one of the masters aside from Ja-woon, Mu-woon (Yun Ju-sang), suddenly reveals he can kick butt, too, he does so convincingly.
The fight scenes of Arahan, it must be said, are excellent: a proper balance of smooth takes and rapid editing equally interspersed with solid, earth-bound as well as flying-through-the-air knockabouts keep every fight scene kinetic and breathtaking. Whenever the action starts, it is seldom played only for laughs — although there is a hilarious scene in which Sang-hwan tries to follow bad guy Heuk-woon (who, actually, is also one good-looking six-packed DILF dude that, when he's not being overly evil, also presses all our kimchi buttons) in tree-walking only to fail miserably — and the choreography never falls back onto the savage editing found so often in lesser sock-'em-chop-'em movies. The fights are great.
One aspect of Arahan that is truly amazing is that so much of the movie is spent on training and the attainment of masterhood, something that most movies handle so terribly (see the crappy Mexican flick Fallen Angel [2010] for the apex of crappy training sequences), and manages to infuse enough humor and physicality that the scenes are fun to watch. Needless to say, the skill with which the director (and his fight choreographer) manages to make such scenes watchable is also utilized, sometimes to an even greater extent, in the "real" fight scenes.
Arahan is definitely not a message movie, it was quiet obviously made to fill the theaters, please cinema-goers, and sell popcorn. Oddly enough, however, it was only a mild box-office success, which might explain why one of the final scenes, which so easily could have led to a sequel, never did. That aside, Arahan is a very well-made, contemporary, urban-set fantasy martial arts film that keeps you entertained from the start both as a comedy and an action flick. Nothing about the movie, even when it dives gleefully into stupidity or suddenly serves up a portion of subdued horror (like the hapless alpha man in the garage who literally loses his youngness) or tragedy (an unexpected death) or scene that hurts (Sang-hwan getting the shit beat out of him by a gang of gangsters), ever comes across as sloppy or unconsidered, and everything reveals the involvement of people who cared about what they were doing. We're happy to say, that their care and skill worked: Arahan might be action fluff, but is truly worth a gander.

No comments: