The niche already gained a hold of some of the earlier works of Korean director Ryoo Seung-wan with films like Die Bad and No Blood, No Tears at the time I broke into my own fandom in 2004.
It wasn’t until after that year though, as my curiousity found its way into a Korean bookstore, that my first exposure to the director’s craft would be one of the most blistering martial arts comedies ever put before an audience.
Enter Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action, starring Ryoo’s own brother, actor Ryoo Seung-bum; Earlier on, I bought a copy of The Princess Blade from ADV and that disc also contained a trailer for Jo Geun-sik’s film, No Manners, which I haven’t got around to seeing provided it’s still available in a whole-in-a-wall outlet somewhere online.
Ryoo plays Sang-hwan, a happless traffic cop who finds himself at the business end of an accidental ‘ki’ blast by store clerk, Eui-jin. The incident ultimately envelopes Sang-hwan into a world where ‘tao’ is still prevelant way of life for five geriatic ‘ki’ masters who are also struggling to make ends meet.
Despite Eui-jin’s skepticism, her father, Ja-wun, sees potential in training Sang-hwan to help him tap into his fullest potential. Culminating these events further is the reawakening of Heuk-woon, one of the original seven ‘ki’ masters. Having entombed himself with dark ki preserving his body and throwing universal ‘ki’ out of balance, Heuk-woon replenishes himself and resolves to claiming the ultimate key to Nirvana.
I was fortunate to purchase a special 2-disc edition of this amazing film as much as I loved watching the creative process behind a lot of movies (oftentimes you’ll even find me watching the special features – a sign that I’ve seen the movie more times than I care to count).
Packed with witty, whimsical comedy and characters you can inherently relate to, and a style of action that inarguably speaks the language, Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action contributes one of the best the genre has to offer.
Ryoo’s Seung-hwan invokes the bumbling carelessness of Mum Jokmok, combined with an athleticism and screenfighting prowess that easily matches that of his action director, fight choreogrpaher and fellow co-star, Jung Doo-Hung who plays Heuk-woon.
Cast members Yun Ju-sang, Kim Ji-young, Kim Yeong-in and Baek Chan-li fill in four of the roles of the living ‘ki masters’. They serve the backdrop of the comedy on which Sang-hwan’s development is founded, especially with Ji-young’s Bangyagain who happens to be both a fortune teller, and at one point, grow a small case of the hots for Sang-hwan.
Yeong-in and Chan-li’s Yook-bong and Sul-woon are inspired to help introduce the public to ‘tao’ by making a televised appearance that doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Slapstick is abound and the deadpan humor is just spot-on.
Ahn Sung-ki brings an air of warmth and resilence to his character, Ja-wun, which pairs quite discernibly different from that of Eui-jin, played by the beautiful and equally fierce Yoon So-yi; Eui-jin’s own empathy and understanding of her father’s acceptance of Sang-hwan only goes so far despite the quiet air of kindness she observes for him but a few times if only to keep him on the straight and arrow. It’s also a character flaw and a key point of development that she’ll eventually have to reach if she and Sang-hwan are to triumph over Heuk-woon.
Her apprehension to outsiders is natural given the obscurity and diminished popularity of ‘tao’ and all the strengths and wisdom she sees and knows is so often taken for granted. With Sang-hwan’s she’s instantly, albeit quietly judgemental of his progress and resolve, and admittedly, his tenacious query on learning how to dish out a sick palm blast as a mere cool new skill isn’t helping.
By the third act, it’s only when lives are at stake that Sang-hwan is able to evolve and fully become the hero he needs to be if he’s to beat Heuk-woon and save the world. That this evolution encompasses one of the most celebrated fight scenes in the genre’s history is an absolute plus with Sang-hwan and Eui-jin squaring off against Heuk-woon at an ancient ceremonial altar beneath a museum where the supposed ‘key’ is supposed to open the door to the heavens.
Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action is a superb, spectacular piece of thrilling Korean cinema, combined with underdog kung fu heroism as seen in hits like The Prodigal Son and Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and the visual spectacle of fantasy thrills of Kim Tae-gyun’s Volcano High.
It helps that rhe stunts and action in Arahan are prominently coordinated with practicality, and only a measured amount of CG in certain shots where it’s needed. The film does fall off on a few things like Doo-hong’s trippy costume change in the second half, as well as some of the wirework which will serve easily as a nitpick for fans who want all their action movies to star Scott Adkins, aside from the fact that wires are the most feasible and effective way of keeping performers safe from injury in the midst of a stunt.
It all falls in the hands of the director himself, Seung-wan, who went on to later entertain us with robust generational revenge thriller, The City Of Violence, as well as with films like The Unjust, Veteran and The Battleship Island.
Despite being just a few films late, Arahan is just one film out of many that got my feet nice and wet more than fifteen years ago on a more global front with the genre. Having watched all the DTV crossovers there were at my local video stores as well as the kung fu bootlegs and discovering an online market place for niche kung fu and Asian cinema and martial arts films, Arahan will always have a special place in my life, and in conjunction with my support for the Ryoo brothers.
Seung-bum is currently starring in Tazza: One Eyed Jack which opens on Friday from Well Go USA. As for Seung-wan, who stars with Doo-hung in the brutal and hard-hitting The City Of Violence, he recently served among a team of producers on Svaha: The Sixth Sense. Other than that, I have no idea where he is or what he is up to, and I’m sort of about to cry because of it.
With any luck, he’s toiling away at an Arahan sequel or even the Veteran sequel that was also in the works a year ago or so back (unless actor Oh Dal-su’s bullshit ruined those chances). Whatever the case, I just want more from the Ryoo bros. When it comes to delivering stellar, thrilling, emotive and entertaining cinema, the two sibs are a sure thing.
Read more about Arahan at my REVENGER ROUNDTABLE.