Arahan (2004) Movie Review

Have you noticed that in Korean comedies the main characters (usually the male) tend to give the impression that he is, shall we say, not “all there”? Take, for example, the hero of “My Sassy Girl”, the hapless wonder in “Sex is Zero”, and now the bumbling cop in “Arahan”. Do you think the Koreans associate comedy with mental deficiency? I bet you could write a paper on this.

“Arahan” stars Seung-beom Ryu as Sang-hwan, the mentally questionable hero of our big-budgeted and very CGI-heavy action/comedy. Although a cop, our hero is nevertheless one of the most bumbling, hapless, and sad sack you’ll ever encounter. After being viciously beaten and humiliated by a local thug, Sang-hwan seeks out the training of Tao Master Ja-woon (Sung-kee Ahn) and his Seven Masters. Even though, as Sang-hwan points out (in probably the character’s only moment of intelligence in the entire film) there are only five of them.

Put into training, Sang-hwan proceeds to whine like a baby, begging to learn the art of Palm Blast in an obvious attempt to arm himself so he can avenge his beating. Meanwhile, Heug-un (Doo-hong Jung), an ancient enemy of the Seven Masters, has just been unwittingly unlocked from his prison and released back into the world, determined to rule it at the point of a sword. To absolutely no one’s surprised, it’s up to Sang-hwan, the man with the untapped reservoir of chi, to somehow put aside his moronic tendencies and stop trying to get into Eui-jin’s pants long enough to save the world. God help us all.

The biggest challenge with “Arahan”, not surprisingly, is accepting Sang-hwan as our hero. Thankfully by the hour mark the script has added about 10 years to Sang-hwan’s personality, and the childish sack of haplessness is replaced by an adult male who is only half the sack of haplessness. Really, watching a grown man displaying the mentality of an 8-year old is very unsettling. This guy has the charm of a baby holding his breath until he gets his way.

As Korean comedies go, “Arahan” isn’t entirely funny, although there are just enough humorous moments to earn it the “comedy” tag. If you can stand Sang-hwan’s constant idiocy, there’s newcomer So-yi Yoon to brighten the dark clouds. She’s terribly attractive, and the fact that she’s a major butt-kicker does nothing to lessen that appeal. Alas, Sung-kee Ahn (“Last Witness”) is criminally underused, relegated to Exposition Guy duties.

The film’s funniest moments has to do with the Seven Masters, especially a scene when, in an attempt to attract more students, two of the Masters go on TV and completely bombs. It’s when the film tries to push its comedy on us — say, with Seung-beom Ryu’s constant mugging and “Look at me, I’m being cute and funny!” moments — that the movie grates on the nerves. The film is simply trying much too hard to make Sang-hwan appealing. He isn’t — that is, unless you like grown men acting like spoiled children.

Another major mistake is not giving Heug-un, the villain, much of a reason to be villainous. As written, the character simply wants to bring order to the world, thus saving it from itself. Not exactly the type of evil world domination scheme deserving of our scorn and hatred. So it wasn’t completely gratifying to see Heug-un take a major beating in the film’s final fight, which in itself seemed to keep going and going and going…

Speaking of which, “Arahan” is a bit erratic with its action. Not only is the first half mostly lacking in said action, but the script seems confused about its own premise. At one point Eui-jin is scaling skyscrapers like Spider-man, and in another scene she appears to have psychic powers. Also, in the cinematic world post-“Matrix”, “Arahan” indulges in way too many scenes of characters leaping over each other in incessantly looooooong slow motion. Take out all the “leap over each other in slow motion” scenes and “Arahan” would hit 90 minutes, tops.

If you liked the crazy Asian superheroics of “Volcano High” or “Legend of Zu”, then the second half of “Arahan” is what you’re looking for. The action ranges from swordplay to hand-to-hand, but things don’t stop there. As in “Volcano High”, characters start developing new powers out of the blue, and you mind as well go with it since doing otherwise would be trying to exert common sense onto the movie, which is a big no-no. In any case, everyone seems to have studied up for their parts, thus making the film’s fighting mostly believable.

In short, “Arahan” gets 3.5 stars for some nice (albeit repetitive) action, but loses a half star for forcing me to endure a moronic hero for much of the film.

Seung-wan Ryoo (director) / Ji-hie Eun, Seung-wan Ryoo, Seon-dong Yu (screenplay)
CAST: Seung-beom Ryu …. Sang-hwan
So-yi Yoon …. Eui-jin
Sung-kee Ahn …. Ja-woon
Doo-hong Jung …. Heug-un
Ju-sang Yun …. Mu-un

Buy Arahan on DVD