By Lee Hyo-won
The anticipated summer blockbuster "Haeundae"
is like a blushing bride, wearing something new, something old and something blue. While the tsunami film rides upon tides of Korean cliches and brims with disappointing computer graphics, it manages to smartly evade some Hollywood disaster film conventions.
The film stays afloat on the strength of a talented, star-studded cast that shines through the artifice and the less-than-sophisticated mise-en-scene. And despite a hefty dose of mainstream superficiality ― or perhaps because of it ― box office favorite director JK Youn
demonstrates his knack for communicating with the audience.
Every summer, Busan's most popular beach, Haeundae, transforms into something of an overpacked, outdoor public bath catering to hordes of vacationers from all over the country.
stars as Kim, a workaholic professor from Seoul who tries to warn that a mega tsunami will swallow up the southern port city within a matter of days. But Haeundae treads away from the Hollywood template for natural disaster movies: Kim is not the hero that foretells the disaster and saves the planet, rather he's among a group of main characters caught in the melodrama that catches momentum with the arrival of the momentous wave.
When Kim is not busy persuading his boss to make a phone call to evacuate people, he must deal with his ambivalent feelings for his ex-wife Yu-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa
) and their daughter, whom he's never met. Yu-jin is a typical working single mom who ends up leaving her child alone rather than asking Kim for help, until the workings of nature force her to.
Meanwhile, Sol Kyung-gu
("Public Enemy Returns"
) plays the hot-tempered, insensitive Man-sik. But he has a soft spot for Yeon-heui (Ha Ji-won
), and the film is worth watching just to see the hardball actor be all smiles for the love of his character's life. When he finally musters up the courage to propose to her, Yeon-heui wants to say "yes" but is forced to take a rain check.
Man-sik's younger brother Hyeong-sik (Lee Min-ki
) is also suffering from troubles of the heart. While working as a lifeguard he saves a beautiful and spoiled Seoulite, Heui-mi (Kang Ye-won
), and his innocence comes to an end. But his whirlwind romance with this Paris Hilton-cum-"My Sassy Girl
" is interrupted by, well, really bad weather.
The film attempts to counterpoint the melodrama with some slapstick humor. Actor Kim In-kwon
assumes the role of the comedic punching bag: a man worthy of the Darwin Award, he almost dies in a fire amid the water disaster. Much of the humor, in the tradition of the director's other projects, is strictly B-rate, resorting to crude physical violence.
There are a number of existing films set in Busan that showcase the tough local dialect, which often serves as a barometer for acting skills. Haeundae stands apart for vividly capturing the city's sensibility, thanks to the director's Busan roots and the actors' blazing talents.
But Yoon may have poured too much of his heart into his portrait of Busan. He failed to snip away superfluous scenes, and the viewer begins to lose focus in the prolonged middle section ― Park, a household name here for his charismatic screen presence, toils in boring lab sequences.
The computer graphics, which aroused lofty expectations given they were done by makers of "The Perfect Storm" and "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", were often like a disappointing gift beneath promising packaging.
But, as the director noted, the movie "is not about a tsunami but is a human story that includes a tsunami". Indeed, the film's forte lies in its rendering of Korean karma, "inyeon", the magical interconnection between people.
As flawed as the film may be, particularly the loathsomely sappy music that often cheapens the drama, the film constantly entertains, and that is what counts.
In theaters July 23. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.