Saturday, November 7, 2009

HAEUNDAE (Korea; 2009)

D/W: Yun Je-gyun

Toronto was fortunate to have had this year's Korean Blockbuster® playing a screen at one of its biggest downtown multiplexes for a few weeks. It's a rarity to view any Korean cinema on the big screen in this town outside of the annual film festival, although TYPHOON did play one week on a screen near the north-end Koreatown a couple of years back.

Though it has much to recommend it, to more jaded eyes (and possibly damaged ears), HAEUNDAE isn't quite the "experience" it's been cracked up to be by various media (particularly the Korean media), despite a clearly and earnestly herculean effort on the part of everyone involved, as well as the suitably epic scope of the "super tsunami" (and the near Hollywood-grade special effects utilized to pull it off) when it finally lays waste to virtually all of Busan.

The only real problem with HAEUNDAE is balance (God knows the film's A-list budget is all up on the screen), which is tipped uncomfortably in favour of that very distinctly Korean brand of loud, slap-happily violent interpersonal relationship for virtually the entire first 70 minutes of the picture, weaving an assortment of romantic, bellicose misfits—a scheming tyrant (repped by vet Song Jae-ho, whose planned mega-mall will oust many local business people), a quartet of love-struck twenty-/thirty-somethings (fisherman Sol Kyung-gu and restaurant proprietess Ha Ji Won, united by her father's death in the 2004 Tsunami; and hunky, nice-guy lifeguard Lee Min-gi and perky college student Kang Ye-weon), cute moppets and even a salt-of-the-earth granny—into position for the rilly big shoo.

Nationalistic Koreans (of which there are many) would argue that these hyperbolic dynamics between family, friends and colleagues are indicative of passion for melodrama and their "earthiness" as a culture, but when it's pitched as loudly, as gracelessly, and as unceasingly (not to mention as drunkenly) as it is here, it's could leave the uninitiated with a splitting headache. It's disconcerting to see such chronic familial dysfunction in almost every film from a culture that prides itself on its outwardly strong family values. Koreans, however, may need a tissue or two by the last reel, since this is exactly the kind of melodramatic rollercoaster they've been conditioned to expect from virtually any film in any genre.

Science? Forget it. Veteran thesp Park Joon-hoong is on hand as a marine geologist (with his own dysfunctional family problems!) whose thoroughly researched predictions of impending doom are, in typical disaster-movie fashion, scoffed at by those around him, particularly his aggressively stupid boss, who's played as such a dim bulb you can't help but wonder how he achieved such high office (this idiot even requires Park to illustrate the super-tsunami principle in the office fish tank!). When he's not dealing with the return of his estranged wife (Eom Jeong-hwa) and the daughter he never knew she bore him, Park's stares ominously at computer screens, pours over ominous maps, receives ominous readouts from colleagues, and generally gets brushed off by the brass.

Fine enough, but the audience is given little sense of what's so ominous "out there" about until well over an hour into the picture. We're given brief shots of an underwater landscape near a Japanese island, the imminent collapse of which, Park suspects, will touch off the killer wave. But these shots show little activity beyond a slightly increasing rumble or shifting of sand. If you're going to follow the American disaster movie model—and import American special effects masters to punch up the realism—you've GOT to have a tease of what's to come to keep people baited; perhaps a sequence showing the destruction of a small portion of the island that doesn't quite register back on the mainland. In HAEUNDAE, the filmmakers seem to think the posters and trailers were all the tease they needed to get patriotic Koreans out to support this year's mega-budget blockbuster: "Face it, folks: you know what's coming; so sit back and watch this hearty stew of soap opera characters drink, scream, cry, fall in love and slap each other for a while!" We do get a few Michael Bay style high- and low-angle slow camera dollies around groups of people in multiple locations transfixing their gazes on television news broadcasts. Surely there must be better ways to film these kinds of gatherings?

Then the wave hits (prefaced by a minor earthquake, no less). And it's hum-dinger! A good 50 meters of briny CGI doom wipes out much of the popular tourist beach of the title, topples the hotels and skyscrapers lining it into each other, props a gargantuan container ship up against the Gwangan Bridge (it's cargo providing a ludicrously exciting falling obstacle course for one hapless schmoe trying to get off the bridge), and washes all of the characters in one direction or another, during which they crank their emotions to eleven, if they hadn't already done so.

And then it hits again, and we accept this because it's what we paid to see, but it stretches logic in ways the Americans stopped doing a couple of decades ago, to say the least (repeat "events" make sense in something like DANTE'S PEAK; they don't really make sense here, but it's still a lot of fun to see). Then, as the waters recede, and two of our beleaguered principals stand on top of a decimated skyscraper with other survivors as the last rescue helicopters roar away with seniors and children in baskets, the camera pans out to the sea and—blammo—another, hundred-metre wall of water comes barreling ashore. At this point, logic has headed for the mountains, and not just to stay dry. But just when we've prepared for this last dose of spectacle, just before it smooches land, the film fades to black, then picks up the story a few days later so the writers can really go for the emotional jugular with scenes of mourning and redemption. Jip!

Despite criticism, this is still very much a film worth seeing. Heck, my own standards were modest enough to pay $13 (+ subway fare) to see it on the big screen at Yonge-Dundas, despite my skepticism that a Korean movie this big would require Korean emotions every bit as outsized! The spectacle is definitely there, although many of the disaster sequences were "shot" from a considerable distance away. Ostensibly this is to give a sense of their scope, but it also suggests that the budget, as big as it was by Korean standards, only allowed for so much personal interraction between the cast and the rushing water, thus we get three main set pieces once the disaster hits: Park Joong-hoon rescuing his daughter from her room on the upper floor of a fast-draining hotel; Song Jae-ho, Sol Kyung-gu and Ha Ji Won joining hundreds in fleeing a massive wave as it barrels down a CG-extended street scape, and clinging to telephone poles where they can indulge some more melodrama; and the secondary character mentioned above trying to get off the bridge impacted by the upright freighter ship. That's more than enough to expect from any country's first disaster movie, but a monied Hollywood take on the tale would allow for several additional (possibly fleeting) sequences involving tertiary and bit players facing the disaster on a more intimate level.

HAEUNDAE is, regardless of its inevitable (though comparably minor) flaws to jaded western eyes, the most convincing disaster film to ever come out of Asia, and the very Korean-ness I'm bemoaning is what makes it stand out from other attempts in other countries. The Japanese did a pretty slick job with JAPAN SINKS in 2006, but the Korean film easily supplants it on many technical levels, and part of that is because it isn't afraid to dumb things down a bit for the domestic audience in order to give them a fun time at the movies. But there's a line drawn, more than half way through, where the dysfunctional-family drama-comedy suddenly becomes an epic scale disaster movie, whereas there needed to be a more seamless integration of the two halves.