South Korean director Ryoo Seung-Wan received acclaim after his low-budget film "Die Bad" and got commercial attention with his film "No Blood No Tears". "ARAHAN Urban Martial Arts Action" (aka. Arahan jangpung daejakjeon, 2004) precedes "City Of Violence" and has gotten a good box-office return in Asia. At first glance, some people can be reminded of Stephen Chow's KUNG FU HUSTLE, this Korean installment does have similar themes in the myths of Zen theories. This is a comic adventure/martial arts fantasy in the similar vein as Stephen Chow's classic, but believe me when I say ARAHAN can stand on its own.
The story is about a goofy cop named Sang Hwan. Although he can be deemed as incompetent by his superiors, he is honest and has a good heart. You might even say he is too good for his own good. Anyway, upon chasing a purse snatcher, he crosses paths with the beautiful Eui-jin (beautiful So-yi Yoon, Shadowless Sword) who is a training martial arts/TAO apprentice who accidentally hits him while pursuing the same snatcher. Sang-Hwan is revived by the remaining 5 Chi masters who unlocks all of Sang's chi flow, and what follows is Sang Hwan doubting his newly awakened potential. After Sang Hwan gets beat up by thugs in a club, he decides to join the 5 masters in training. One of the masters holds the key to enlightenment, and this is where the story really takes off when an exiled evil lost master is set free by a bunch of innocent subway workers. The key in defeating lies within Sang Hwan--but can he achieve the state of Arahan and become the next Maruchi to save reality from chaos?
The opening wherein the masters are discussing the difficulty in training as well their statement that some people reach master level without even knowing it is a nice touch. The discussion serves as a parallel to what is going on martial arts films. It is a shame that old-fashioned martial arts films are becoming rare these days, with the use of CGI and other visual effects, the most inept action star can look good with a few editing tricks. True, production companies are resorting to visual effects to attract mainstream audiences. I don't mind CGI as long as it is practiced with restraint, and "ARAHAN" does show a profound respect in the spirit of martial arts.
ARAHAN has massive commercial appeal with a very basic storyline that may remind you of "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Bulletproof Monk". It does carry some of the usual clichés of martial arts films; a klutzy student, a hot girl who can kick your ass, a sensei and a bad guy who has links to the past. The film knows exactly how to play on its audience's senses and is very well-paced that you can't help but be immersed in its experience. With its opening act, and 7 minutes into the film, you will feel the energy and the humor as our two leads are in pursuit of a mugger. It incredibly develops the characters of Sang Hwan and Eui-Jin with little effort. Sang Hwan is on foot while Eui-jin is running on rooftops and the sides of the buildings--the direction knows how to generate energy and knows how to grab the viewer. It captured the hearts of film festivals all over Asia, and I am surprised this film hasn't been released officially by a major U.S. studio.
Ryoo Seung-Bum did a great job in portraying the lead character. Honestly, this type of lead character is a little too overused, but his acting is convincing enough to generate some sympathy. The chemistry between Seung-Bum and So-yi Yoon is the one element that made the film work. Their characters may not be unique, but their interactions give the screenplay much needed keenness. Eui-jin is the more experienced fighter and it was real fun to see the two learn and practice martial arts--they seem to look a little awkward at first until you see them getting better each time you see them. It adds a level of credibility, as the audience can actually witness the improvement in their martial arts prowess throughout the length of the film. So-yi Yoon is a newcomer in the silver screen (she's done several TV series) but this is her first major motion picture. The actress is pretty, charming, physically capable; she is also one of the most sought after young Korean actresses of this generation.
The bad guy played by Jeong Du-Hung (City of Violence) is evil enough and is definitely convincing enough to give our two heroes major grief. The only complaint I have is the fact that the Seven masters had a huge potential for major development, but all but two are abandoned. The two monks who display their skills on national TV, and the over-sexed older female teacher would have been a ball to see more of. But also part of its strength is the fact that it does make one wonder if the mystical ZEN theories depicted in the film have a ring of truth to real life practice in modern times.
Directed by renowned action director Ryoo Seung-Wan (Crying Fist), the fight scenes are nicely placed and succeeds in keeping its audience interested. There are some use of CGI and some wires but I have to give the direction credit with his sense of restraint. The film does have its touch of mysticism so I can excuse the use of visual effects, blended with the Kung Fu style of Wu Shu, the fights look real good. The director didn't lose respect for "old school" martial arts and he makes good use of his knowledge. The moves are pretty basic at first but after each action sequence, it becomes bolder and flashier. Arahan has solid commercial appeal and although, it may have the usual cliches in martial arts movies, the movie is solid with its hard-hitting fight sequences and humorous moments. You may say that the action revolves around its characters, the more the screenplay goes, the more confident they become. That restaurant fight scene is destined for martial arts movie greatness. Editing tricks, stunt doubles are utilized but its all done remarkably well that you won't even notice. It's all part of the learning curve building up to the inevitable encounter in the final act. The final fight is entertainingly good; the CGI effects are fitting and you may see elements of "DragonBall Z" pitched in with all the dust and debris flying around--complete with some yelling to express a comic book-like charm.
I saw the Korean actioner "Whasango" (aka, Volcano High) that carried similar touches of mysticism and martial arts action. I did not like "Whasango" as much as I did "ARAHAN". The spirit of martial arts is preserved in this film as with other films by Stephen Chow. The film isn't verbose in its execution and has that aura of simplicity about it. "Arahan" may not be as inventive with its plot and its characters may not be memorable as I would have liked, but the action sequences are enough to make this film a very memorable diversion. This film is worth a look if you like great hard-hitting martial arts action with a touch of comedic humor. Though a lot of people may consider "KUNG FU HUSTLE" is superior, it is whole lot better than most action films and can definitely stand on its own.
It is definitely one of best to come from South Korea.
Highly Recommended! [4 stars]
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