Before we begin, let’s take a run down the Asian horror checklist for Arang, shall we?
Spooky pale young girl, with long black hair obscuring her face? Check
An unspeakable crime buried deep in the past, now being avenged from the beyond? Check
Tech savvy ghosts haunting their victims via the very latest in communications technology? Check
Victims dying inexplicable deaths by what appears to be little more than assuming a frozen rictus of terror? Check
Twisty, gimmicky and nonsensically confusing conclusion? Check
Grist for the self-parody mill? Absolutely!
Arang unloads almost all of these clichés right out of the gate, as if fulfilling a contractual obligation. But giving it the benefit of the doubt, I think the film wants not so much to establish itself in the current tradition of J-Horror (or, in this case, K-Horror) films, but rather dispense with these hoary tropes as quickly as possible, and get on to more pressing and serious matters. So, though I was rolling my eyes during the opening moments of the film, “Here we go again”, and settling in for another Ju-on / Ringu redux, Arang> slowly but steadily started to make a case for itself. Once it gets rolling this film manages to achieve a 90-degree turn from its start, making a valiant if unsuccessful effort to avoid self-parody.
Detective So-young (the fetching Song Yun-ah), troubled by her own haunted past, is called into investigate the mysterious death of a man who appears to have died by either strangulation or internal acid gas poisoning, or both. Teamed with a bumbling rookie, Hyun-ki (Lee Dong-wook), the pair follows their only lead; an e-mail that the victim received immediately prior to his death. This e-mail leads them to spooky website called “Min-jung’s Salt Storehouse”, which features twilit scenes of a rickety, seemingly abandoned shack out in the middle of a marsh, juxtaposed with photographs of a winsome young girl, all set to an eerie lullaby like soundtrack.
Though it was unnerving in the original Ringu, and even doubly so in the American remake The Ring, this sort of setup and imagery has become rather quaint and tired by this point. Flickering, color-drained nightmares stalking out of electronic media devices just don’t cut the mustard, anymore.
So, more victims start to pile up, and So-young starts to make connections between those killed, a missing girl named Min-jung, a haunted village whose main trade is in salt, and a 10-year-old murder / cover-up, which bind all the victims together. All the leads are dead ends, though, until an obscure clue contained in a grainy video tape (of course) upends everything and reveals the true nature of the murders and the disappearance of Min-jung, a solution that had been staring Detective So-young in the face all along.
And, yes, of course, our stock, long, raven-colored-hair, water-logged, ghost makes an occasional appearance throughout, punctuating the film with “boo moments” that are more laughable than terrifying. But they seem incidental to the action, and fade into the background as the film morphs more and more into a mystery and police procedural.
Director Ahn Sang-hoon, perhaps recognizing how tired Asian horror conventions have become, seems to be paying lip service to the genre while wanting to take it in another direction. Of course, making the investigation and investigators the focus of the film is really no great shakes either, and already has a fine exemplar in recent South Korean cinema, Bong Jooh-ho’s superb Memories of Murder.
But Ahn’s focus on police routine allows him to straddle the line between a natural and supernatural explanation for everything that happens. Yes, all the murders could have been perpetrated by a vengeful ghost, but there’s also a perfectly plausible, if still somewhat fantastic, factual explanation, as well. Not necessarily ambitious or particularly original, this deliberate ambiguity at least allows some interpretive leeway for the viewer upon the film’s conclusion.
Or, it might give Ahn an easy out for what is basically a hurried, confused, and possibly cheap resolution to everything. Since he never definitively asserts just how we wants to play everything, the end comes off as shlocky and unsatisfying, where the decades-long accretion of bad karma and stewing vengeance never quite jibe with what’s ultimately revealed.
Multiple viewings do nothing to alleviate this narrative and tonal confusion, and what could have been an aching tragedy of young love, lost innocence, betrayal, and murder loses all of its emotional depth in this welter of twisty gimmickry. That’s unfortunate for Arang, which up to that point had at least been making strides in the right direction, and unfortunate for Asian horror, because Arang might have established a new beachhead for an increasingly moribund genre.
As typical of Tartan DVD releases, Arang is accompanied by a slew of extras. But, as is also unfortunately typical of Tartan as well, they are of limited quality and interest. A “Making of…” feature and a “Behind the scenes” doc., each clocking in at over half an hour, merely takes us on set to watch scenes from the film being shot at a remove. They are somewhat indistinguishable from one another, and in neither does the director or the cast really shed any light on what they were aiming for, aside from a connect-the-dots horror film. Ahn hints he was trying to make a more human story than your run of the mill ghost story, but the evidence never quite jibes with the intention.
A feature-long commentary track from the director and cast members is nearly impossible to follow, with all the intertwining subtitles of the main track of the film and overlying commentary track piling up on the screen. I did my best, but I quickly fell into a blurry-eyed, headache-inducing stupor. As always with Tartan, the best extra feature is the bevy of trailers for upcoming releases, an endless parade of Japanese and Korean films featuring (you guessed it) long-tressed, angry young female ghosts, bent on clogging up e-mail inboxes, haunting televisions, and prank calling their victims to death. If you’re still buying the Asian Horror shtick at this point (and I sort of still am, I admit), there’s a bumper crop on the way.