In his new and immensely popular movie Haeundae – billed as South Korea’s first disaster film – director Yoon Je-kyoon follows his titular seaside resort town’s residents as they attempt to survive the coming of a merciless 100-foot killer wave.
Though it dramatizes the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake – using the event as a springboard for the plot – the film better adheres to the director’s signature genre, the romantic comedy, than the disaster genre. For the most part, the approach works in the film’s favour, as its application of South Korean cinema staples (slap fights, over-the-top romance, an upbeat soundtrack) aid its departure from familiar genre tropes.
Without taking long to make the jump from 2004 to 2009, the first half of the movie wraps us in the interwoven melodramas of the movie’s half-dozen protagonists, who unfortunately register closer to stereotypes than actual characters. We find the couple driven apart by a dangerous secret; the drunken son and his pushy mother trying to get him on his feet; the innocent coast guard rescuer who saves a big-city college girl, later falling for her; a crooked businessman; and a disgruntled scientist who unsuccessfully tries to warn authorities of the coming disaster.
Rather predictably, the movie also exposes us to the sunny beach resort’s seedy underbelly: an unlicensed restaurant, children being used in money-making scams, street fights, et cetera. Equating excessive alcoholism to comic relief, the characters frequently drink to excess, behaving in an inane Three Stooges kind of way. For the Western viewer, however, the film’s saving grace may lie in those unintentionally funny moments where the filmmaker’s intention was lost in translation. For instance, at one point, the central character belittles one of his drinking buddies by asking him what type of grades his son gets.
Then the tsunami hits. The movie’s effects treatment – featuring collapsing buildings and a toppled giant freighter – was conceived by Hans Uhlig, the man who created the digital effects for The Day After Tomorrow, The Perfect Storm, and Star Wars I, IV, and V. In the outrageous chaos, those characters that were drawn up as self-absorbed losers predictably prove to be heroes, occasionally finding themselves reunited with loved ones.
As a whole, the film doesn’t take very many risks. Transitioning from one formulaic sequence to another, it tries to please every age group and fans of almost every genre. It’s pure entertainment – the type that Hollywood often promises but fails to deliver even on a much bigger budget. Unfortunately, Haeundae’s status as a foreign film will probably limit its reach, its target audience failing to give it a chance.
Still, cataclysmic, end-of-the-world movies have always drawn crowds, and domestically, this one is no exception. In fact, Haeundae has registered over 11 million admissions, a figure that barely accounts for its overwhelming popularity on Internet piracy sites and the black market. Its crossover to other markets is equally impressive, having arrived to foreign markets a mere two months after original release.
That being said, viewers risk forgetting the dark shadow lurking over this film – the fact that it’s based on the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which killed 230,000 people across 11 countries. If it weren’t for the goofy bits and the slapstick humour, some people might realize how inappropriate it may be to be making entertainment flicks out of recent history’s most colossal tragedies.