|cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon, and Uhm Jung-hwa
director: Yun Je-gyun
108 minutes (15) 2009
One of the reasons I enjoy Korean cinema is its inventiveness. Korean film follows different rules than western cinema, often mixing slapstick and horror elements to marvellous effect, or taking the storyline in directions that are breathtakingly unexpected. The Host is the perfect example. I’ll come back to that observation shortly. In the meantime, Tidal Wave (aka: Haeundae) is Korea’s first disaster movie, a huge success in its home market and filmed on what for that market was a huge budget.
The essential storyline is of a vast tidal wave, a tsunami, one far worse than that which devastated South East Asia in 2004. The film explicitly references that real world disaster, opening with a ship caught in it at sea back in 2004, leading to Choi Man-Sik (played by Sol Kyung-gu) promising to the dying ship’s captain that he’ll take care of his daughter, Yeon-hi (played by Ha Ji-won, easily one of the best of the cast). Five years later, after this brief prologue, Man-Sik and Yeon-hi are in love but neither has acted on their feelings, and both are living marginal lives in the coastal area of Haeundae, fishing and running an unsuccessful cafe.
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There are many other characters, a clumsy lifeguard, the bored city girl he rescues and engages in a bizarre sort-of-romance with, her friends and the rich local boys whom they’ve paired off with, Man-Sik’s feckless friend Dong-choon (played by Kim In-kwoon), a geologist named Kim Hwi (played by Park Joong-hoon), Man-Sik’s rich uncle, Dong-choon’s worried mother and many others. Disaster movies have always had large casts, and this is no exception.
In some ways this is a fairly traditional film, geologist Kim Hwi is a lone scientific voice ignored by the authorities, warning of a risk of a super-tsunami that could devastate Korea, and noting some troubling seismic readings indicating that his long held fears may be about to become a reality. Complicating matters for him, his estranged wife is in town, part of a launch of a new development which will push the locals out of Haeundae replacing their cheap housing with new luxury properties.
Maverick scientist, authorities ignoring warnings, property developers, and salt-of-the-earth local people; all the ingredients for a classic disaster movie are here. However, if you’ve read this far you’ve doubtless seen the number in red at the top of the page. So, where does it all go wrong? At the opening, I mentioned how Korean film has successfully mixed slapstick and horror, to often excellent effect. Yoon Je-kyoon does the same here, with whole character arcs being played for broad laughs. When the lifeguard rescues the girl, he knocks her out with his thrown lifesaver, when he’s giving her the kiss of life she wakes up and bites his lip almost in half, and so on. There’s a clear element of buffoonery in it all, while meantime the scientist warns of the approaching disaster and draws parallels with the real world 2004 tsunami.
The problem isn’t one of taste, disaster movies by their nature are kind of in bad taste, that’s part of the fun if anything. It’s that while slapstick works with horror, it turns out it’s not such a good combination with disaster. In The Host the characters are intentionally comic, but their relationships aren’t, and the monster they face is so terrible that the humour becomes welcome humanity.
In Tidal Wave, the characters are again comic, but their relationships are played for laughs too, and what they face is epic but also in a sense prosaic. Tidal waves after all really happen, as the film keeps reminding us with its references to 2004. Man-Sik has a son, introduced early on but then forgotten for most of the film before being endangered near the end. If Man-Sik seems to have forgotten him for most of the film, why should I care about him? I couldn’t find an answer.
Whether you care about the characters or not goes to the heart of this film. It spends a lot of its running time on set-up; we’re an hour in before the sub-sea quake triggering the tsunami happens. Director Yoon Je-kyoon clearly takes pains to establish his characters and give the audience every chance to care for them. I still didn’t, but a Korean audience in the millions did, so while I’m not recommending this film it’s fair to say there are plenty who would.
Once the disaster hits, the movie continues to have problems of tone, some characters facing comic threats while people around them die. On the plus side though, some set pieces are genuinely exciting: the realisation by the scientists who’ve ignored geologist Kim Hwi’s warnings that the tsunami is on its way, and that they’ve left responding so late that there’s now just an impossible ten minutes left in which to evacuate a crowded city; the sea withdrawing from the breach (prior to rushing back in force), as it did in 2004 of course, this time people knowing what that means and resulting in mass panic; a futile race through the streets from the approaching wall of water; a frantic climb up telegraph poles to avoid the worst of the onslaught, racing against electrical cables drooping slowly into the river the street has become. Equally, Kim Hwi’s attempts to rescue his daughter from his ex-wife’s hotel room, while his wife waits trapped in a lift with water rising around her, are well done.
The special effects are generally pretty good, there are multiple waves due to the effects of aftershocks, and some good imagery of shattering buildings and a vast outpouring of water from the side of a skyscraper. The budget’s been spent to good effect. As the disaster continues though, it soon becomes apparent that Yoon Je-kyoon’s become so attached to his own cast he’s reluctant to kill any of them off. For a disaster movie, the number of named characters who die is surprisingly small, even intentionally annoying comic relief parts at times experience miraculous (and wholly unexplained) survivals. Some characters survivals are, flatly, incredible – if you’re clinging to a street-level lamppost I’m not sure how you survive a third wave taller than skyscrapers, nor do I see how a lone man on a bridge survives a wave strong enough to hurl oil tankers through the air. I’ve no problem with watching a film and saying – wow, how will they survive that? I do have problems with watching and thinking – oh come on, nobody could survive that!
Whether this film will work for you or not will depend pretty much on whether you care for the characters. I didn’t. Yoon Je-kyoon clearly wants us to though, and if you take to them and their issues more than I did, then you’ll enjoy it a lot more too. As it is, I’d suggest watching it with a few beers, let yourself laugh at the idiocy of the romantic subplots (you’re meant to after all) and let yourself be wowed by the special effects. Just don’t expect a repeat of The Host. Oh, and if you ever find yourself in a disaster movie, never say anything remotely like “”now we’re safe.” It’s just asking for trouble.
The only DVD extra is the cinematic trailer for the film itself. Given that around 13 minutes have apparently been cut from the original Korean release, some deleted scenes at the very least would have been welcome.