Arang (2006)

Jake Meaney

Once it gets rolling this film manages a valiant if unsuccessful effort to avoid self-parody.


Director: Ahn Sang-hoon
Cast: Song Yun-ah, Lee Dong-wook, Lee Jong-su, Choo So-yeong
Distributor: Tartan
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Tartan
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-05-08

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.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.