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DVD Review: Arang and The Ghost

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Is there any genre in modern horror cinema that is simultaneously more abundant and more depressingly rigid in its narrative constructs than the Asian ghost story? The spooky genre of Ringu-inspired films are to the beginning of the 21st century what the first-wave slasher flick was to the '80s — an omnipresent, easily copiable template with which any minimally ambitious automaton with a camera and a crew can provide character names and let the cliches fill in the rest.

Presumably, this means that a few years from now we'll start seeing entertainingly tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of the genre a la Scream or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon; until that time, though, we're stuck with endless variations on a theme, of which Ahn Sang-hoon's Arang and Kim Tae-kyung's The Ghost are but two recent Korean examples to receive a U.S. video release from Asian-film specialists Tartan Video.

Arang at least shows some initial promise. After an opening sequence featuring the typical expendable uniformed schoolgirl (who gets to deliver the priceless line, "It'd be better to see a ghost than a pervert"), the plot kicks in. It's the typical story of a group of people, linked by an incident in their past, dying mysterious deaths at the hands of a ghost with broken fingernails and long black hair.

What sets Ahn's film apart initially is that it's framed as a police procedural — rather than the research into the history and motivation of the vengeful spirit being done by one of its prospective victims, it's being done by two detectives. So-young (Song Yoon-ah) and her new partner Hyung-gi (Lee Dong-wook) are initially called to the scene of a death thinking it to be just another murder case; when investigations into a couple of other subsequent deaths reveal a cryptic e-mail delivered to the victims moments before their deaths, the two realize that, to solve this case, they must also tackle a case from many years prior.

While the genre mash-up is an admirable idea, Ringu and its progeny already serve as procedurals by proxy, as the template demands an effort by the protagonist to figure out the nature of the haunting and how to stop it (if, indeed, it can be stopped). Despite his enthusiasm for the CSI-style goings-on that comprise much of the narrative, Ahn's tweak can only be considered cosmetic; beyond this minor change, Arang falls pretty quickly into the accepted plot progression often found in these narratives.

Given this progression, I give Ahn and the other three screenwriters credit for tossing in little touches, such as the traumatic event in So-young's past that eventually aligns her sympathies with the ghost or the unexpected third-act homage to Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, that show them at least trying to make something even a little different than could be expected. This extends to their clumsy-but-sincere attempt at subtext; the corpses all show signs of having been killed by poison gases that forced their way out their stomachs and up through their mouths, thus drawing a concrete parallel to the guilt they hide within that proves to be their undoing. Nevertheless, the familiarity of the material overwhelms the small steps of progress made by Ahn's attempts to play with the framework holding said material. Slapping a rejiggered package on an old product doesn't make it a new product, and Arang unfortunately too often feels like a greatest-hits compilation that has had a new track added to it to make it more attractive.

If Arang suffers from its familiarity, The Ghost collapses under the weight of its accumulated cliches. Even the English title screams out a warning — it might as well have been titled Generic Asian Ghost Story #427. It too involves someone, this time a young woman with amnesia (Kim Ha-nuel), trying to discover why people are dying in eerie ways and whether there's anything she can do about it; however, it lacks even the low-grade energy of Arang, settling instead for a bland professionalism that suggests everyone on set, from writer/director Kim down to the key grip, was a mere hired gun aware that they were crafting product and nothing more.

The Ghost, in fact, so slavishly adheres to the standard tropes laid out by the genre trailblazers (jet black hair, copious water imagery, spirits with an unquenchable desire for revenge as a result of a past grievance) that it almost seems a parody of itself, a la the sly first half of Takashi Miike's One Missed Call. Certainly satirical intent would explain the occasional moment of inexplicability, such as one character, apropos of nothing, advising another not to drink on an empty stomach or a coroner judging a man drowning in a darkroom to be a "natural death." Considering that Kim lets the film run for a good thirty-five minutes before telling us the names of the lead characters, though, these bits seem more symptomatic of the kind of slack filmmaking that occurs when nobody really cares how the final product turns out.

It's indicative of the type of quality one gets from Kim's film that, despite the current home-video craze for just about anything that has a raven-haired ghost and subtitles, it took a full three years for it to make it to America. Neither The Ghost nor Arang are anything special, but at least Ahn's film shows signs of effort. Both films, though, demonstrate that this genre is weary unto death from repetition. It's time to put Sadako and her ilk to rest for a while.

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