With its unusual blending of both the horror and detective story genres, Arang makes for an ambitious effort by director Ahn Sang Hoon. In terms of the special effects, anyone who has seen such films as Ringu, The Grudge, or Dark Water will find the basic Asian ghost formula repeated once more -- so don't expect to be scared out of your seats. Still, any decent image of a young white female revealing her pale, dead face from underneath her long, dark tresses of hair is going to have an element of creepiness to it. The placement and presentations of those ghostly appearances are very well done here, as well. Throughout, the cinematography and soundtrack are just superb -- in these respects, I look at Arang as something of a work of art. I would also note that this ghost doesn't just show up one minute and kill somebody the next -- she likes to make her victims suffer mentally and emotionally before closing in for the kill. Unfortunately, the story itself has some major problems.
One thing that makes Arang different from most modern Asian horror is the characterization on display in the story, particularly that of the female lead detective (Song Yun-ah). An experience in her past continues to haunt her (and -- on at least one occasion -- gets her into some trouble), and those feelings are brought to her emotional forefront during her investigation of an unusual series of murders. The victims are all healthy young men who share a disconcerting cause of death -- a buildup of prussic acid inside their bodies (with no evidence that it was ingested through the mouth). We, of course, get to see these murders as they happen, and they all involve the inexplicable appearance of a vengeful young ghost of the Sadako (Ringu girl) variety. The only obvious link between the victims is the fact that, immediately prior to their deaths, they had all visited a web site featuring a certain old Salt Village. The detective and her green new partner, who left forensics to work on the homicide team, soon determine that a murder took place at that location nine years earlier, and that unsolved murder is somehow the catalyst for the string of recent murders. The lead detective takes the investigation quite personally, to the point that she wakes up each morning to nightmares offering her further insights into the case. Some reviewers have felt that the middle section of the film is too boring, as it follows the progress of the investigation rather than serving up more spooky images of the dead young ghost. I didn't really feel that way myself; in fact, I thought it made the film a bit more interesting.
The one major flaw of the film is the fact that several parts of the story make absolutely no sense. We all know Asian horror films can be pretty complicated, convoluted things, but the gaps in this particular story are far more than the result of the viewer "missing" something along the way -- nor are they little things that don't matter all that much. One breakthrough in the investigation comes about in the most ridiculous of ways. The only thing stranger than the detective knowing where to find an important clue is the question of what that clue was doing there in the first place. There is no attempt whatsoever to explain this, either. That alone is at least a one-star deduction in my rating. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ending isn't all cut and dried, either. I don't really have a problem with this type of "conclusive ambiguity" (if I may coin a term), but I do expect someone to explain important details to me as the story moves along.
Despite some very real problems with the story and the fact that the film does little more than rehash a majority of the biggest clichés in modern Asian horror, I still find it hard not to enjoy a film with such a powerfully dark atmosphere. If you're new to Asian horror, I wouldn't recommend starting your journey with this particular film, but it's definitely worth seeing by those who are already huge fans of the genre.