Arahan (아라한 – 장풍대작전 / 아라한 장풍 대작전 )
Near the start of ARAHAN, the hero can’t believe that the old duffers surrounding him are the fabled Seven Masters. One of them punctures the moment by suggesting that maybe he thinks they’re Power Rangers instead. Ryu Seung-wan’s third feature is full of such past-meets-present moments, eventually staging the end fight scene in a museum (where else?).
Ryu Seung-wan’s Masters know all the moves, and the back-story the hero (and audience) has to discover, but they’re really a bunch of niggling codgers at heart – complaining about how difficult it is to make money these days, how crap training in the mountains is or what they each use levitation for (changing lightbulbs). Led by Ahn Sung-ki (from CHIHWASEON and much more; think of him as the Korean Martin Sheen), a dependable gang of Korean character actors wring maximal humour from their roles.
Past the superhero-montage plot-mould, ARAHAN holds back on its formidable fight scenes until the second half. Once goofball cop Sang Hwan (played by the director’s brother Ryu Seung-bum) finally unleashes his inner chi in the first half, he’s gleefully able to use his powers on the criminals who bullied him and the real enemy, the newly-liberated evil Seventh Master. Back on the past-versus-modern theme, ARAHAN links the villain to both the mystic past and the near past of South Korea’s riots and natural disasters.
Mixing up influences from across the board, Ryu Seung-wan convincingly moves away from gags to deadly intent with finesse. Blades whirl at supersonic speeds before locking in perspiration-dripping eons of strain with almighty chimes of steel. Nothing new for Far Eastern fight fans, but the pacing builds up to it well and the consistent beauty of the backdrops – a fountain, a museum exhibition – hype up the tension of these moments. Plenty of wire-fu allows characters to fly around their arenas, complemented by Sam Raimi-era SPIDERMAN CGI city free-roaming, but nothing to the extremes of Stephen Chow’s madcap SHAOLIN SOCCER.
Keeping in touch with the stupid-apprentice archetype, Sang Hwan and his fight partner Eui Jin (daughter of one of the masters, played by Yoon So-Yi) continue to goof around a little during the big fights. A wink here and there and the occasional kick to the crotch give Sang Hwan, and ARAHAN itself, humanity. After all, pulling off a Street Fighter style Hadouken would be a blast!
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