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FRIGHTENING FOLKTALE. Ahn Sang-hoon’s Arang is part ghost story, part police thriller. (Photo courtesy of Tartan Asia Extreme)
From The Asian Reporter, V18, #27 (July 8, 2008), page 13.
Ordinary ingredients hinder this tasty South Korean dish
Directed by Ahn Sang-hoon
Distributed by Tartan Asia Extreme, 2006
DVD, 97 minutes, $22.95
By Mike Street
If you’ve been to enough Chinese restaurants, you can recognize the quality of one simply by its menu: If you see mostly sweet-and-sour dishes, along with General Tso’s Chicken and Egg Foo Yung, it’s likely the place is rather ordinary and common. Asian horror films can be the same way, with the worst (or most ordinary) relying on a slightly new combination of the same worn-out frights and images. Others might use one or two of these devices but still manage to transcend them with clever plots or outstanding acting. Arang, Ahn Sang-hoon’s 2006 debut film, struggles with the weight of these tropes, ultimately producing a story that resonates deeply with South Korean audiences, even if non-Koreans need to know a South Korean folktale to reach the same level of understanding.
"The Legend of Arang," the folktale in question, is relatively well known in South Korea, and tells the story of young Arang, the daughter of a local official. A servant conspires with Arang’s nurse to rape the girl when she is alone in a remote area, but Arang struggles enough during the attempted rape that the servant kills her and buries her corpse. Arang’s father, despondent at his missing daughter (whom he thinks has only been kidnapped), resigns his post to search for her.
But each of his successors dies of fright after their first night in office, when Arang’s ghost visits them with her story and a plea for vengeance. When the first "good man" is appointed, he survives through the night, and awakens determined to right the wrong. He presses the nurse and servant to confess, whereupon they reveal Arang’s corpse, still mysteriously preserved many years later. A shrine in the Miryang area of Korea stands today as memorial to her story, and she is celebrated for her virtue and posthumous persistence.
Knowing this legend doesn’t really spoil Ahn Sang-hoon’s movie, but it does provide a cultural framework to understand the film better. In Ahn’s modern-day version, a haunted salt warehouse by the ocean hides many secrets, including a vengeful ghost who sends e-mails to men before appearing and killing them. Arang is part ghost story, part police thriller, as So-young (Song Yoon-ah), a police detective with her own reasons for vengeance, discovers the connections between the ghost and the murdered men with the help of her new partner, Hyun-gi (Lee Dong-wook).
Along the way, we are treated to some now-familiar Asian horror moments: flickering lights, frightened uniformed schoolgirls, ghosts who use technology to their own malevolent ends, and black-haired ghosts of little girls scaring the hell out of macho South Korean men. Veterans of this genre may yawn a bit at some of these moments, but Sang-hoon manages to keep viewers engaged with his twisting plot and engaging characters. Even knowing the Arang legend won’t reveal all the surprises, but it does help to understand the deeper resonance of the film.
It is unfortunate that the legend of Arang carries such an odd weight — either knowing or not knowing this backstory will lead to an incomplete experience of the movie. Undoubtedly, however, Ahn assumes his audience has a passing familiarity with the tale. This makes it particularly awful when the legend is written onscreen at the end of the movie, but the subtitlers choose only to translate the name of the legend and not the text beneath. This gross oversight deals a crippling blow to a film that presumes a knowledge of the legend, even if the full details aren’t revealed until the end of the movie.
Though first-timer Ahn struggles with these handicaps, Arang is still an interesting mix of police thriller and ghost story that promises good things to come from this director. The horror clichés are relatively few and far between, and he doesn’t lean on any of them — other than Arang’s ghost — too heavily. What makes the film work is the intricate storyline and fine work on the part of the actors. Song manages to exude both toughness and vulnerability, a difficult task for actresses on either side of the Pacific Ocean, and the rest of the cast supports her well. While many movies in this genre have plot holes large enough to drive a lunch wagon through, Arang is largely believable, at least from the police angle, and interesting. Like a beginning cook, Ahn relies on too many old recipes and ingredients to create Arang, but he shows the ability to someday soon create new dishes to dazzle our cinematic palates and transcend the simple seasonings of his predecessors.
Arang is available on DVD. To learn more about Tartan’s Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.