MOD Week, Day One: Arahan

I’ve always had a fondness for the martial arts, and often wished that I had studied it as a child. I did take a few “classes” in college, run by a friend in his spare time, but otherwise, nothing. Thus, I fill the void of unfulfilled promise with martial arts films of all kinds. While I can handle some of the dubbed stereotype films that the general populace think of and was lampooned heavily in the 2002 release Kung Pow: Enter The Fist, I prefer martial art films with heart (Fearless), compelling stories (Ip Man, Hero), ferocious style (Ong-bak, The Protector), amazing stunts (D13, D13: Ultimatum), or just plain bugs bunny humor (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle). So when I came across Arahan on Netflix Instant and read the reviews suggesting it was a fun film with amazing fight scenes, it became only a matter of time until I checked it out. That time, it seems, was now.

Plot: Young, clumsy rookie cop Sang-hwan gets injured when he gets caught in the crossfire between a thief of Tao Master, Eui Jin. Taken to the remaining Seven Masters of Tao for healing, they decide to recruit him to learn how to control his chi. Could this angry, whiny man have the strength of will and the discipline of character to lose his ego and ascend to Maruchi – a warrior and protector of harmony.

Cast: Ryu Seung-beom, Yoon So-Yi, An Sung Ki, Jeong Doo Hong.

The third feature film from Korean director Ryu Seung-wan, Arahan is more complicated than the initial plot description suggests. In the beginning, there were Seven Masters of Tao – The Masters, as enlightened beings, were not allowed to influence involve themselves in the everyday lives of man, but when the suffering of the people became too great for one, he broke free and ended the strife. Because he turned against the principles of the Tao, he was banished. The Sixth Master died protecting innocents during a riot. The remaining Five Masters have lived quietly for years, hidden in plain sight. Some using their skills only when the innocent are in danger, others for personal profit (it’s hard being a monk).

Many years later, our hero, Sang-hwan, gets hit by a Palm Blast meant for a purse thief, and he’s taken to the remaining Five Masters for care. Through much training (as expected), they teach him how to channel his chi to defy gravity, and to focus his mind so he may become stronger and faster. However, before he can become the warrior they believe he is, he must first let go of his ego. A task which, given how often he was ridiculed by his parents and beaten up as a cop by criminals, is the most challenging.

I found the film highly enjoyable, but I’m not entirely sure it knew what it wanted to be. At times it attempted to be a serious film, employing aspects of the Chinese genre “wuxia” (meaning “martial hero” – dealing in stories of honor, codes of chivalry), hailing the Masters simultaneously as great heroes of the people who must remain in the shadows so that they can continue to protect them and as the last of a breed of honorable warrior. By finding another, Sang-hwan, with the natural skills to channel his chi, their hope for a new generation of guardians is rekindled. On the other hand, Sang-hwan is a dolt with zero patience, falls through windows when he should land gracefully , tries to use his powers to see under girls’ skirts, and is more concerned about impressing one girl than doing the right thing. Frequently I found myself thinking that actor Ryu Seung-beom’s portrayal of Sang-hwan as an odd mixture of Bruce Lee and Stephen Chow – sometimes it worked, typically not.

Overall, keep expectations low, but it’s an enjoyable and entertaining watch.

Personal Recommendation for Reader Viewing:

Hero

I saw this film in 2004 on DVD, and it still as strictly beautiful and poignant as the first time I watched it. Split into vignettes, Hero is presented as a story told by an unknown protagonist to the Empire of China. Each tale of a battle between the man and known adversaries to the kingdom. There are few films that perfectly balance the ferocity of swordplay with the delicate grace of dance. Though the world may be filled with cruelty and strife, is the true Hero the one who stops the immediate threat or allows it to happen for the greater good?

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Categories: recommendation, streaming

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