Review: Yoon Je-kyun’s “Haeundae”

The disaster movie is a tried-and-true mode of popular cinema, the apotheosis being such 70’s films as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, as well as the all-time box-office king, Titanic. The formula is simplicity itself: take a diverse assortment of characters (preferably cast with as many big stars as possible), spend some time introducing them and examining their conflicts, add a man-made or natural disaster that upends everything with state-of-the-art special effects, stir very thoroughly with some tragedy, pathos, triumph, bravery, and sacrifice, and voila, you’ve got your movie. The next step, hopefully, is watching the tons of cash roll in. By 2009, Korea had one such movie to call its very own: Haeundae, set in and named after the famous beach in the southeastern port city of Busan, a very popular tourist attraction, not only for Koreans but for visitors from Asia and the rest of the world. It was a massive blockbuster hit, and one of the highest-grossing films in Korean history. The film itself is a crude, clumsily written and edited, yet brutally effective piece of big-budget spectacle, which follows the disaster-movie formula to the letter. It takes its sweet time following its large cast of characters, crisscrossing their stories and connections until the disaster hits, which in this film is very skillfully staged. The filmmaking, which up until that point is rather standard and unimaginative, rises along with the massive tsunami to be thrilling and genuinely emotional. The best aspect of the film is the actors, especially the wonderful Ha Ji-won and the equally excellent Sol Kyung-gu, who do a great job selling this material, even when it is beneath their talents, which is quite often.

The premise of Haeundae is that a massive tsunami, on the order of the one that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 (referenced repeatedly in this film, and which was Busan native Yoon’s initial inspiration), is on track to directly hit Haeundae Beach and the rest of Busan. This tsunami is diligently tracked by seismologist Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon), who advocates for a tsunami warning system of their own, and not depending on the one in Japan, a project not without nationalist overtones – “We can’t let the Japs beat us!” one of Kim’s colleagues exclaims at one point. Kim is divorced, and has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife Yu-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa), who refuses to tell their daughter (presumably born after their marriage ended) that he is her father, out of lingering anger over his neglect of their family in favor of his work.

While the scientist nervously tracks the waters, in scenes accompanied by ominous shots of threatening undersea earthquakes, the film turns its attention to several characters by the seaside. Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won) runs a small raw-fish stand, and is in love with Man-sik (Sol Kyung-gu), who has been akin to an older brother since their childhood; she was taken in by Man-sik’s family after her father’s death. Man-sik is fairly thick-headed, and fails to notice Yeon-hee’s feelings for him. He has a penchant for getting drunk, and this aspect of his character mostly played for laughs, most notably in a scene in which he gets arrested for drunkenly harassing a baseball player at a game.

There is also a colorful assortment of other characters, such as a group of vacationing girls from Seoul, including Hee-mi (Kang Ye-won), a haughty girl rescued by coast guard Hyeong-sik (Lee Min-ki) after she falls off a yacht, which begins a slapstick romance between the two. The town’s vendor association is up in arms over a proposed shopping mall that will drive them off the beach. Much low comedy is supplied by ne’er-do-well slacker Dong-choon (Kim In-kwon), who at one point poses as a blind man to make money.

The film benefits greatly from its vivid portrayal of Busan, a place very distinct in character from Seoul. And just as the broad comedy and corny whimsicality starts to become a bit too much to bear, the big wave hits. And it’s an impressive one, and the lengthy setting up of characters and incident in the first half of the film begins to reap dividends, making the emotional aspects of the story moving, if not any less obvious or heavy handed. Haeundae is an entertaining enough night out at the movies, its crude and clunky scenario elevated by spirited performances by its cast, and expertly staged special effects (supervised by CG whiz Hans Uhlig, who worked on two of this film’s Hollywood natural disaster forebears, The Perfect Storm and The Day After Tomorrow), which in the end make this material more potent than it really has any right to be. And there are a few inspired sequences, most notably a Buster Keaton-type bit where Dong-choon deftly dodges a series of falling freight cars displaced by the wave, and another scene in which he causes an inferno with a faulty cigarette lighter. Just don’t expect great art in the bargain.

For a film that successfully marries its behemoth budget with a smart, politically acute, and genuinely heartfelt story, look no further than the current all-time Korean box-office champ, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. Bong’s film proved conclusively that one need not pander to the lowest common denominators of both Korean and Hollywood filmmaking to be both an artistic and popular success. One wishes for the sake of art that Yoon had heeded this lesson. Unfortunately, the massive box office receipts of Haeundae no doubt convinced him that bigger, broader, and cruder is better.