Arahan (아라한 장풍 대작전, Ryoo Seung-wan: 2004)

Sang-hwan is a traffic cop who is new to his job and who tries (often unsuccessfully) to do the best job possible. While pursuing a bag-thief he comes across a young girl called Eui-jin who accidentally hits him with a ‘Palm Blast’ which knocks him off of his feet. Amazed at the power of the girl, he learns that she is a martial arts student who is taught by her father and a group of Tai-Chi Masters. Sang-hwan becomes obsessed with learning the ‘Palm Blast’ technique and eventually convinces the teachers to let him learn from them.

At this same time an old Master returns to the city to seek revenge on the group of Masters – and to claim a key which will give him an unstoppable power…

Arahan is a fun film. It’s as simple as that. It’s not a film that will provide any deep insights into the human psyche, it won’t change your life and it probably won’t rate as one of your favourite ever films. What it does do very effectively is to provide nearly two hours of fairly non-stop fun, with some breathtaking action scenes and some comedy scenes that have only been beaten by Stephen Chow in regards to both their inventiveness and plain stupidity.

Ryoo Seung-bum takes the lead role of Sang-hwan, the bumbling traffic cop and he is almost unrecognisable in the role. If you’ve seen his next film – Crying Fist (Ryoo Seung-wan / 2005) – you can really appreciate how good he is in Arahan . Seung-bum is brilliantly (and at times, uncomfortably!) good as Sang-hwan, displaying both top acting skills and some deft comic timing. He’s no slouch in the action stakes either as he convinces with his delivery of martial arts fight moves – he’s quite convincing both with and without the use of CGI.

Alongside Seung-bum is the excellent Yoon So-yi as Eui-jin and although she gets to take the most serious main role of the film, she manages to come across as likable and again shows a talent for physical comedy. Yoon So-yi is maybe not quite as convincing in the fight scenes, but she comes across strongly enough.

The rest of the cast are equally well filled out, the other Tai Chi Masters interplay is almost childlike in their relationships with each other – their opening scene sets the tone for the film perfectly as they argue about the problems of teaching Tai Chi to today’s youth. Later in the film an appearance on a television programme by two of the masters is ridiculously daft – and hilarious.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan proves yet again that he has a chameleon-like prowess from film to film. Arahan is radically different from his other films both in look and feel. The obvious comparison – and almost inevitable influence – is Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow, but whereas Chow layers his comedy with fast and furious verbal and sight gags, Ryoo occasionally slows the jokes down in order to establish some key characters and plot developments. The joke quota in Arahan is still kept very high. Probably the most surprising element is the top quality fight scenes. In CGI heavy action the temptation is to utilise a lot of over the top imagery and ideas, but Arahan wisely keeps the action simple and (with some careful use of CGI assistance), before letting loose with some Volcano High (Kim Tae-gyun / 2001) style action in the second half. Keeping the over-the-top fights for the second section of the film allows Ryoo to establish character and plot (as simple as they are) before dazzling us with fancy visuals.

Arahan does have a few small problems. The film slows a little around the half-way mark (there’s a training montage which doesn’t work as well as it probably should) before picking up the pace again. The final showdown also feels a little overlong and there’s a nagging element of having seen this before, but all in all Arahan has more than it’s fair share of original ideas, as well as reworking some old ones.

As far as daft action-comedies go, Arahan is highly recommended. Although Stephen Chow comparisons are unavoidable and this perhaps isn’t as consistently funny as the occasionally similar in style Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow / 2001) or Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow / 2004), it’s still one of the best comedies in the last couple of years and yet another sign of the confidence and originality of Korean filmmakers.

아라한 장풍 대작전 (Arahan)
Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan
Produced by Kim Mi-hee
Written by Ryoo Seung-wan, Eun Ji-hee, Yu Seon-dong
Starring Ryoo Seung-bum, Yoon So-yi, Ahn Sung-ki, Jung Doo-hong

Arahan Image © Good Movie Company