The concrete walls and glass surfaces of a modern day Korean metropolitan stand tall and proud in the sun, as a purse snatcher on the prowl searches for his next victim. Little does he know that he himself is being watched from the rooftops high above. The young girl Eui-jin jumps from one roof to the next, with an elegance that would put Superman to shame, keeping a close eye on the would-be thief.
When the culprit finally makes his move, and steals a woman's bag, he does so right in front of Sang-whan, a young cop making a routine traffic stop. Sang-whan initiates a pursuit, but when he finally catches up, he finds the thief squaring off against Eui-jin, who blocks his way.
Using her special martial arts talents she attempts to throw down the assailant with the special palm blast technique. However, she misses and hits Sang-whan, who is knocked unconscious!
When he wakes up, hes at the home of Eui-jins father, one of the 5 remaining members of the legendary Seven Masters. The masters serve as the keepers of the key to Arahan, the ultimate state of enlightenment, where one has no more to learn. Theyre looking for the next Maruchi, a supreme master, to carry the key, but in this day and age no one wants to know about Tao or Chi.
Believing that the young cop has an extraordinary strong Chi, they decide to tell him about their training, and offer him an opportunity to learn about the ancient martial arts techniques, and the philosophy behind them.
Sang-whan thinks the whole thing is a bit ridiculous. He turns the masters down and returns to his normal life, but when hes humiliated by some local gangsters he becomes frustrated with his own powerlessness, and seeks out the elders again. All he really wants to learn is the palm blast technique, but he is not about to get off that easy. They put him on a vigourous training program.
Meanwhile, deep beneath the city, construction workers toiling away in an underground tunnel, come across an ancient hidden chamber. When they peek inside they get a bit of a chock. Theres a man inside! And hes still alive!
The man is Heun-un, one of the original Seven Masters, who was banished many years ago. Heun-un resumes his tenacious search for the key to Arahan, so he can rule the world, and this time he will not be stopped. Heun-un seeks out and destroys each of the old masters one by one. Soon Eui-jin and Sang-whan are the only ones who stand in his way...
Arahan comes off a little like a bastard child of Karate Kid and The Matrix.
Theres the young prodigy, unaware of his own latent abilities. Theres the wise teacher(s) looking for a young apprentice to carry on the burden of some special gift. Theres the bad guy waiting in the wings, who doesnt follow the rules. And lets not forget the perfunctory love interest or the inevitable showdown that will determine the fate of all the characters, and force our young hero to step up and take on the mantle. Come to think of it, this is really the building blocks of quite a few stories, but as the old saying goes: If it aint broke, dont fix it. Stories like this work, and so does Arahan.
The film starts off in a playful light tone, slowly introducing us to the heightened reality, and the rules its going to play by. Through the fumbling Sang-whan we discover the various concepts of Arahan and the philosophies behind the fighting. Along the way the slapstick humor is mixed with the semi-serious backstory about the spiritual decay of the world, and the fate awaits us if we continue to ignore our heritage. Im not saying were dealing with some new age save the world crap, but theres a little food for thought buried beneath the crazy antics, a message that should resonate with most people. But I guess if you only tuned in to watch the fighting, the first part of the film can be a little trying.
However Arahan doesnt let the complicated backstory ruin anything. You can easily enjoy the film even if you ignore all the prophecies, the chi and the cha and whatnot.
Sang-whan, as played by Ryu Seung-beom, is annoying as hell to begin with. A slobbering mumbling insecure fool, the kind of guy you want to beat up on sight. His constant complaining was on the verge of getting to me, but then he suddenly shows signs of his fighting abilities, and soon all is forgiven.
As for Eui-jin, shes pretty as hell, but its her feisty nature that most appeals to me. In one scene Sang-whan walks in on her as shes changing outfit. Shes almost completely done, but he does catch a glimpse of skin. He pauses for a moment. She just looks at him without flinching. Do you wanna die? she asks! Is there anything more sexy, than a girl who can kill you with her bare hands?
A sweet relationship builds up between the two, but the film resists an all too obvious love affair between them. Theres a hint of some kind of spark, which may bring them together one day, but in this story theyre in the middle of saving the world, so romance will have to wait. A distinction few film bother to make.
I have this sentence stored in the clipboard of my wordprocessor, so I can just paste it in every time I write a review of a Korean film: The cinematography is gorgeous, the editing is flawless, and theres a great sense of rhythm. South Korean movies are so consistently gorgeous and well-made that Ive given up trying to describe the same thing over and over again, with new words.
Arahan is no different from the all the other Korean productions. In terms of visual style, it lands somewhere between Volcano High and Shaolin Soccer, while the fight scenes are inspired by The Matrix. I am of course aware that Matrix stole from the entire Asian back catalogue to create its vision, but thats why its especially fitting that now Asian movies have begun to steal from Matrix, or perhaps stealing is the wrong word, perhaps I should say reclaiming.
About an hour into the film we get the first big fight, and from then on, its rock n roll all the way! From sword-fighting to fist-fighting to jumping though the air - Crouching Tiger style - the film covers all the bases, from one inventive set-piece to the next, ending in a fantastic climactic 3-way fight in a museum - a superb location.
The fights are raw, filled with energy and lots of anger! This is the kind of fighting where the entire room is obliterated in the process. These guys are playing for keeps!
The fights are mostly realised though wide shots, and often kept in long uninterrupted takes, so you really get a sense of the moves. Digital effects, wire stunts and ulta-slowmotion all come into play during the fights. These three pillars of modern day action scenes can be the most infuriating thing if they are not used with precaution. Arahan uses them perfectly.
Its easy to recommend Arahan as a fighting film, with the footnote that the real fighting only begins halfway through, but its even easier to recommend it to anyone who enjoys the kind of crazy Korean humor on display in films such as My Wife is a Gangster or Volcano High.
Arahan will not win a Nobel Peace Prize, nor is it likely to put an end to world hunger, but it is - without a shadow of a doubt - a good solid piece of fluff.
So lets sum up what weve learned today: If you meet a Korean girl on the street, who knocks you off your feet with an invisible blow, take it as a good omen. Youre about to embark on an adventure. Modern life doesnt grant a lot of opportunities like that, and you only get one shot. So take it.