Ryu Seung-wan’s third feature following the searing Die Bad and snazzy No Blood No Tears was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2004. In a reversal of what greeted No Blood No Tears - overwhelming support by critics but indifference from the audience - Arahan was a relative commercial success at 2 million admissions, but drew mixed reviews. Some critics were obviously disappointed to find an unabashedly commercial film operating within the perimeters of the Asian action genre, minus the spurts of dark, realistic violence and artistic temperament in Ryu’s previous works.
The best way to approach Arahan is to consider it a shrewd hybrid of the updated kung-fu wire action extravaganza and a modern superhero comic adaptation: a mutation of Shaolin Soccer by way of Spider-Man. It is a labor of love by a filmmaker deeply immersed in the tradition of Hong Kong kung-fu cinema, especially the early films of Jackie Chan. The film has so thoroughly digested this tradition that the homages to Chan, Yuen Woo-ping and other past masters of Hong Kong cinema may not be readily spotted. But it’s there when Ryu Seung-beom smashes a thrown chair in mid-air with a jump-kick, as in the original Drunken Master. It’s there when the camera licks the length of the sword that penetrates a character, as in The Eighteen Bronzemen of Shaolin.
At the same time Arahan comes with colors and sensibilities uniquely Korean, whether it is the film’s clever premise that ordinary working class "craftsmen" are in fact secret masters of martial arts, or the mollifying comic performances of the veteran supporting cast. Arahan does not feel like a hodgepodge of Hong Kong film references (as it would have in the hands of a lesser talent) but like a contemporary descendant of the (mostly mythical) cross-breeding between Hong Kong and Korean action cinema of the 1970s.