Judge Joel Pearce says it's official: Ghostly girls with long black hair covering their faces are no longer scary.
Her spirit will be avenged.
No-one would blame you for passing up Arang, thinking it was yet another yawn-inducing long-haired girl ghost movie out of Asia. Indeed, the horror elements are pretty generic, but the real value of this film lies elsewhere. It's a fascinating police procedural and a thought-provoking look at social issues that uses horror movie conventions as a backdrop.
Facts of the Case
Two men have died horribly, mysteriously poisoned from inside their bodies. So-yeong (Yun-ah Song, Face), a tomboyish detective with a tough edge, is on the case with her rookie partner Hyun-ki (Dong-wook Lee). The more they investigate, the stranger the case becomes. All evidence leads to a small coastal town, and the disappearance of a teenage girl many years before. It's a ghost that's killing these men, whether So-yeong wants to believe it or not. It's all about revenge, and the investigation is about to get supernaturally dangerous.
Arang is billed as a horror movie, but that's probably the worst way the producers could have marketed this convoluted beast. The horror elements are certainly there, but they are simply another run at the same old Asian ghost cliches. The ghost in this case is a long-haired asian woman, with bleeding eyes and torn fingernails. She appears to her victims (usually by video or television) after sending them haunted email messages. The horror scenes are painfully typical, ripping off sequences from The Eye, Ringu, and The Sixth Sense. The timing is familiar, the camera angles are familiar, which really puts a damper on the fear factor. Ultimately, Arang doesn't work as a horror movie.
There's good news, though. Instead of the ghost and her victims, the real heart of this film is So-yeong's investigation of the murders. Much to my surprise, the investigation is well structured, intelligent, and gripping. Although it sometimes employs ridiculous police logic, information is doled out at just the right speed. As we learn new information each character is fleshed out well. Best of all, it doesn't feel like a typical police investigation. So-yeong and Hyun-ki have genuinely interesting discussions, and don't get into the generic, stupid situations that most film detectives do.
As well, Arang is a fascinating exploration of an important social issue. The film is based on an old Korean legend in which a young woman is raped and murdered. The film is a contemporary retelling of this story, which I assume is familiar to Korean audiences. As in the original legend, the ghost of the woman is out for revenge against a group of men who raped her and got out of paying for this crime. So-yeong has a sexual attack in her own past as well, and she uses her position of power in order to go after men who abuse women. There is an attitude around the station that some women are asking for it, and that rape just happens sometimes. Could we possibly still have that attitude towards women? Are these kinds of crimes still swept under the rug? If so, the social purpose of Arang is much more important than its entertainment value as a horror film or a detective thriller. Several genre films lately have explored South Korean social issues such as plastic surgery, the drug industry, and treatment of women. It's an important trend of which this film is a part.
All things considered, this is a relatively good technical transfer from Tartan Video. The picture quality is strong, although it features the same interlacing artifacts shared by most of their DVDs. The sound quality is a problem, however. The dialogue is spread across the three front channels instead of feeding through the center channel. There isn't much action in the surrounds, even during the horror sequences. I suspect that it was upmixed to Dolby 5.1 and DTS from a stereo source, although I'm not sure why. As a result, it's difficult to locate dialogue and other sound effects.
The disc has a surprising number of extras, too. We get a commentary track with the director and a few cast members, subtitled in English. Reading subtitled commentaries is still frustrating, but this one is better than some. It's a surprisingly critical track, as director Ahn Sang-hoon discusses things that he felt went well and went poorly. The disc is rounded out by a handful of featurettes and a few deleted scenes. The production featurette is the usual studio nonsense, as interviews are spliced with production footage. There are some separate interviews as well, which do little to deepen our understanding of the film. Still, it's an impressive array for those who want to dig deeper into the world of Arang. The deleted scenes are quite long, and do enhance our connections to the characters.
Although Arang isn't the generic Asian horror flick that it appears to be, the horror segments of the film do get in the way of the fascinating social project lurking below the surface. It's this social commentary that makes the film worth watching, and Tartan has done a fine job making the disc pleasing to watch as well.
Not guilty, though I would really like to see a different looking Asian ghost one of these days…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Director and Cast Commentary
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