Tsunami at Haeundae
I have a pretty high opinion of Korean films. I've seen some really good ones, like Shiri, A Tale of Two Sisters, JSA, Oldboy, and The Host. South Korea has perhaps the most exciting movie scene in Asia right now; they constantly make films that are unique yet accessible, they're doing some amazing things with genre, and they can even adopt the Hollywood blockbuster formula and outdo Hollywood while they're at it. All the movies mentioned above have been highly acclaimed in both East and West; all are prime examples of the cream of Korean film.
And then there are the non-prime, non-cream, unacclaimed Korean films.
Man-shik (Sol Kyung-gu) is in love with Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won), but is wracked with guilt over his involvement in her father's death in a fishing boat accident. His brother Hyong-shik (Lee Min-ki) is a junior lifeguard who clumsily rescues Hi-mi (Kang Ye-won), a spoiled rich (and somewhat psycho) girl, and she starts stalking him for it. Dong-choon (Kim In-kwon) is a good-for-nothing friend of Man-shik's who lives with his long-suffering mother. And Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon) is a geologist who learns of disturbing seismic activity in the nearby ocean floor - but must also deal with his estranged wife Yoo-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa) and their daughter. All these people must struggle for their lives when a massive tsunami hits their seaside resort city of Haeundae.
Yes, it's an ensemble disaster movie in the grand tradition that includes The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Titanic, and goes all the way back to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Airport (1970). I guess being in Korean gives it points for originality. There's a very rigid structure for movies of this genre: first you introduce a bunch of characters and their various interpersonal conflicts. Then the disaster strikes, and the aforementioned characters are thrown into death-defying action scenes. How well this formula works depends on how well-drawn the characters are, which makes their subsequent life-and-death struggles all the more thrilling.
And frankly, during much of the first hour it wasn't working well at all. There's a lot of dumb slapstick and ill-defined drama, and it was all pretty tiresome. Man-shik's mother hates Yeon-hee for some unknown reason, there's an old guy who wants to develop the seaside district and is trying to evict all the residents (or something), Hi-mi goes all My Sassy Girl on Hyong-shik, Kim Hwi delivers some inane geological technobabble, and Yoo-jin is a royal bitch. The somewhat suspect subtitles didn't help either; for all I know, all of Kim Hwi's scenes may have had rigorously accurate scientific terminology in its original Korean. But I still don't know who the old guy is and why everyone hates him.
(As a matter of fact, according to this Wikipedia summary, there's an entire subplot that was excised from the movie. I have no idea why or what gives.)
Then a curious thing happened. The tsunami hit, and I found myself actually caring about these folks. (Actually it happened a little sooner, during a fireworks display the night before that everyone watches entranced. It neatly brings together all these disparate characters into a common narrative thread.) Sure, the CGI is bad - or at least, not so good that you can't see the seams - but the massive destruction still delivers a visceral thrill. And these characters' goofy charm had actually grown on me enough that their struggles through storm-tossed oceans, trapped and flooding elevators, and flooded streets with fallen electrical cables kept me engaged.
But then the real waterworks started. See, the one defining characteristic that sets Asian commercial cinema apart from the West is that it always goes for broad; broad melodrama and broad comedy. They're not afraid to put slapstick pratfalls and heartrending tragedy in the same movie, and the best ones can make it all of a consistent tone. This one goes way overboard. A rescue helicopter's winch malfunctions for no other reason than to allow the rescuer to heroically sacrifice himself, which he only does so after a long and tearful goodbye to his love interest. Two parents hoist their daughter to safety on another helicopter just before a second tsunami hits, and there is much weeping and bawling and slow-mo. Both scenes are shamelessly, artlessly manipulative. Just because you're painting with a broad brush doesn't mean you don't need skill to wield it.
For some reason, the female actors all consistently fare much worse than their male counterparts. Ha Ji-won is wooden as hell; Kang Ye-won attempts to channel Jeon Ji-hyun and fails; and Uhm Jung-hwa is, as mentioned, little more than a royal bitch. The male characters all have a sadsack charm that works, although Park Joong-hoon never gets to do anything more than look worried a lot. The standout is Kim In-kwon, who plays an effective lovable loser; he gets to be in the movie's best scene, involving falling shipping containers.
I guess your enjoyment of this movie will depend on how cynical you are. Do you laugh at goofy slapstick, or do you roll your eyes? Do you weep at tear-jerking melodrama, or do you check your watch? Me, I'm pretty goshdarn cynical, and I can call out mawkishness and schmaltz when I see it. And even I almost liked this movie. So I guess this counts as a tentative recommendation - but you'd really be better off watching something like The Host instead.
NEXT REVIEW: Jin Notti
Anticipation level: ...for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me