“Arang” – A.J. Hakari

The Tartan horror/mystery Arang borrows its title from a centuries-old Korean folk myth. Unfortunately, the movie itself isn’t about that legend, nor does it give viewers the damnedest clue concerning what it is.

Instead, Arang revolves around So-young (Song Yoon-ah), a Seoul detective just returning to duty in the Violent Crimes unit after being suspended. She barely has time to sit down or get to know her rookie partner (Lee Dong-wook) when a crime scene with a charred and asphyxiated corpse drops right into her lap. It seems like a slightly strange but open-and-shut case, until days later when another man mysteriously dies, and their respective autopsies reveal both died due to exposure to a deadly gas released from inside their bodies. Although the determined So-young sets out to track down the killer, the real culprit may be of the supernatural kind, and the weird deaths tied to a young woman whose spirit wants to avenge a past wrong from beyond the grave.

Like the recent Korean thriller Face (which Song Yoon-ah also starred in), Arang brings an investigative, “CSI” sort of edge to the Asian horror table, rather than depicting the same group of nimrods falling under the same cinematic curse for the umpteenth time. Arang shows people of action trying to get to the bottom of a mystery, a much more compelling alternative to seeing the latest bunch of cookie-cutter characters attacked by another long-haired ghost. Yoon-ah gives a convincing and sympathetic performance as So-young, a dedicated cop with a checkered past of her own that fuels her current quest to quash crime. The story, although by-the-books to start with, takes an unexpected turn in the last half-hour or so, providing the film’s central mystery with a surprising resolution.

I really wanted to like Arang. However, for every step forward, it takes two steps back in one department or another, adding up to a frustrating experience of feeling distanced by a movie just when you’re starting to get into it. The film includes some scenes all too familiar to anyone who’s seen a Ringu or Ju-On in their time, rehashing the tried and true “stalk and scare” method to showing murderous specters in action. Pale, long-haired women with funky eyes were scary once upon a time, but it’s become old hat. Even the ghost’s method of attacking her victims, popping up in a creepy website, is reminiscent of the “possessed electronics” approach of One Missed Call and The Ring. Not exactly a prime example of tactful writing, the script often turns out laughably bad dialogue (though this may be due to a bad subtitling job) and sets up certain scenes by having the characters take senseless actions (especially in how So-young knows exactly where to look for a piece of crucial evidence). And despite the nice twist in the climax, Arang presses onward and loses a good chunk of that credibility with a final scene I hoped the film would avoid, considering where it ended up mere minutes before.

Although Arang is well-filmed and contains better acting than the standard scarefest, I can’t fully recommend it. Because of the movie’s knack for simultaneously surprising and disappointing the viewer, watching it is something like reading a great Agatha Christie novel — while getting paper cuts from every other page.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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