ArahanReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/26/05 01:29:40
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The first thing you see when a movie opens these days are vanity cards, labels showing which companies produced and distributed the movie. As with seemingly every Korean movie at this year's Fantasia festival, the studio is Cinema Service; this film's production company, however, is called "Fun and Happiness". It seems kind of silly to say, but how many brand names describe their company's product so well?The film's humorous opening addresses a number of misconceptions the public may have about the sort of high-flying martial-arts master we see in kung fu movies but not so much in real life - you know, the ones who can run up walls, jump several times their own height, and project concussive energy from the palms of their hands? The conventional wisdom is that the chi masters train secluded in the mountains, but why would they want that? Ja-woon (Ahn Sung-kee) and the other four of the seven chi masters (yes, that's accurate) have settled in Seoul, where Ja-woon's daughter Eui-jin (Yoon So-yi) is their only disciple - and she works in a convenience store to make ends meet. Most people, the masters scoff, don't even know what chi is any more.
Certainly, bumbling policeman Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-beom) doesn't, until he comes across Eui-jin stopping a purse snatcher and gets flattened by a stray palm blast. Ja-woon and company see great potential in him, but he is of course doubtful and impatient. He just wants to learn how to palm-blast (well, and maybe hang around with sexy Eui-jin), but, of course, there is discipline and other techniques to learn, but he'd better learn them fast - a developer has unearthed the lost seventh chi master, Heug-un (Jung Doo-hong), and his second order of business (after restoring his youth by sucking the life force from a few punks) is to start knocking off the remaining masters, so that he can obtain the key to ultimate power which he plans to use to rule the world!
Co-writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan (the older brother of star Seung-beom) knows the conventions of this sort of story, and has some fun with them. The masters are not obtuse ascetics, but modern people who seek to find potential disciples via television and run 900-number fortune telling services. Sang-hoon is a buffoon, but he's a sincere one - he wants to be a good cop, and is outraged at how his partner (and much of the rest of the police force) is in the gangs' pockets. And his mastery doesn't come easy, either - in many movies, Sang-hwan would stay a bumbling fool until very late in the game, and then under extreme stress have a breakthrough. While there's a little bit of that here (along with the inevitable training montage), the filmmakers do a good job of making Sang-hwan earn his newfound abilities.
Another thing that somewhat extended learning period in the middle of the film does is allow Ryoo and company to transform the tone of the movie from a jokey comedy to a legitimate action movie. Heug-un is a strong villain, and by the end Eui-jin and Sang-hwan are worthy adversaries for him. Also, unlike a lot of wire-fu action movies, there's an actual sense of realism to the fight. We've spent the movie's first hour or so learning what chi powers and techniques can do in the hands of a master, so the film's last half hour isn't just people flying around with no respect for gravity and physics. We know what these guys are capable of, so when we see someone sent flying across the room, we've got an idea of whether they'll be knocked unconscious from hitting a wall and when they'll land gracefully.
We've got a fair idea of who they are, too. Ryoo Seung-beom is a little hammy as the early, bumbling Sang-hwan, but works a bit better as the character matures. He doesn't just replace one characterization with another, either: Sang-hwan remains funny even if he's no longer a joke - I like how his attempts to talk smack during the final showdown sound lame and unpracticed, even if he does now have the skills to back it up. Yoon So-yi hits the "grumpy" note a lot, but she's generally got ample reason to be cranky. I like that her chemistry with Ryoo is mostly actual bickering, as opposed to really loving each other. Ahn Sung-kee, meanwhile, functions as the cast's anchor - he's a strong father and teacher who can lead the characters and audience into the fantastic elements because he's so down-to-earth himself.I'd like to see "Arahan" hit North America outside the festival circuit. It's a fun action/adventure with a nice cast, nifty special effects, some laughs and a couple good fight scenes. There's a lot of good stuff going on, movie-wise, in South Korea right now, and while I think the general public is more or less aware of Japan and especially Hong Kong, Korea is still sort of flying under the radar. "Arahan" isn't the Korean film industry's greatest accomplishment, but it's a thoroughly entertaining, accessible entry.
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