Director: Yoon Je-Kyoon (윤제균)
Cast: Sol Kyung-Gu (설경구), Ha Ji-Won (하지원), Park Joong-Hoon (박중훈), Uhm Jung-Hwa (엄정화), Lee Min-Ki (이민기), Kang Ye-Won (강예원), Kim In-Kwon (김인권)
America’s not the only country that can have a grand ol’ time symbolically destroying itself! Witness Haeundae, Korea’s answer to Hollywood disaster epics that stars a giant tidal wave which runs clean over Pusan. Oh, and there are some people in it too. All joking aside, despite the various similarities to its Hollywood counterparts both watchable (Independence Day, for example) and God-awful (Volcano), and despite taking some pages right out of the Roland Emmerich Disaster Movie Playbook, Haeundae proves to be an entertaining film that provides compelling human drama and genuinely likable characters to match the visual extravaganza in the latter half of the film. Emmerich, take note.
Despite its impending destruction, Pusan is a lively city full of an assortment of characters who go about their daily lives with a great degree of certainty that they will not be swept away by a raging tidal wave or crushed in a veritable sea of debris. Everyone, that is, except for Kim Hwi (Park Joong-Hoon), super seismologist extraordinaire. He’s tracking a series of small earthquakes whose epicenters are consistently moving dangerously close to Korea. The worried expression he constantly wears on his mug foretells of the oncoming destruction, but true to disaster movie form, nobody believes him – especially his bitter ex-wife Yu-Jin (Uhm Jung-Hwa) who is in charge of the upcoming Korean Culture Expo. Elsewhere in the city, the film’s other characters spring to life at the outset. Man-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu) is a local fisherman and single father who lives with his mother and young son. He spends his time getting drunk and frequenting the seaside foodshack owned by Yeon-Hee (Ha Ji-Won), whom he not-so-secretly adores. It’s not so much that he just fancies her, however; he was charged with her protection by her father who died in a fishing accident in the midst of the southeast Asia tsunami. It’s a job he takes very seriously, but he’s a little too meek when it comes to admitting his true feelings. Man-Sik’s brother and friends round out the rest of the cast, each coping with their own day-to-day affairs. His brother Hyeong-Sik (Lee Min-Ki) is a diver with local search and rescue who becomes the target for the affections of a charming, yet slightly quirky, young girl from Seoul. And lastly, his deadbeat friend Dong-Chun (Kim In-Kwon) loafs about, scamming locals and tourists out of their money instead of listening to his mother and searching for a legitimate job. Phew, and these are just the primary characters! There are additional characters and side stories that reveal more of each person’s motivations and inner make-up, and you can rest assured that each character will reveal their true selves for all to see by the time the waters recede.
Before continuing on, please note that this review is based on the 129 minute director’s cut of the film, not the 103 minute international cut. However, I have seen both versions, so I will tell you exactly what was excised for international distribution – character development. Simply put, the international cut eliminates much of the content that clarifies character relationships and their backgrounds. If you see the shorter version, you may be left scratching your head after it’s all over, wondering why the movie felt a little rushed. You would even be forgiven for seriously thinking the filmmakers used a chainsaw to edit the thing. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but the director’s cut creates fuller characters, giving the ensuing disaster more of an emotional punch instead of simple visual panache. For example, if you watch the shortened version, you’ll miss some pretty funny sequences like Man-Sik’s extended drunken rant at a baseball game and Dong-Chun using Man-Sik’s son in a pyramid begging scheme. Take a look:
Ok, so everyone wants to know – when does the wave hit?? Let’s take the film 2012 as the penultimate disaster epic, if only because financially it was a worldwide success, so it definitely found a global audience. It also features disaster after disaster of orgasmic proportions that actually begin to occur early in the film. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, and grizzled-tooth Woody Harrelson’s half-naked backside. Haeundae changes things up a bit because the wave doesn’t make landfall until about 90 minutes in. While some may disagree, I appreciate that the filmmakers chose to unleash everything at the end, thereby giving audiences a chance to know the characters and (hopefully) care about the them. However, the extent to which you care about the characters depends on your tolerance of some pretty broad humor and overplayed stereotypes. Faring the best is Sol Kyung-Gu as Man-Sik. He lays it on thick as a drunk, but he’s an endearing character and he walks a fine line between his love for Yeon-Hee and the immense guilt he feels over her father’s death. Sol, of course, is a very competent actor, having amazing performances in Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) and Oasis (오아시스) under his belt. Ha Ji-Won is a strong presence, but she’s not given much to do besides look pretty and wait for Man-Sik to come to his senses. She does a fine job, but she’s much more effective in Closer to Heaven (내 사랑 내 곁에), for which she won the Best Actress award at the 30th Blue Dragon Film Awards. The film’s other standouts are Lee Min-Ki and Kang Ye-Won, whose onscreen relationship is actually quite charming. Being the sort of simple-minded local, he is of course befuddled that this lovely young lady from Seoul would take a romantic interest in him. And although her personality is incredibly offbeat, he is drawn to her quirkiness:
You’ve gotta admit, her spontaneity would make any date fun! So now that you know WHEN the wave hits, your next question is probably something along the lines of, “how cool is it?” Well, considering the film operated on a budget that was quite literally 1/20 that of 2012, it doesn’t look, dare I say, 100% realistic. However, it easily gets the job done, the scene where the wave swallows the bridge being the standout sequence as far as I’m concerned. There are some issues of improper lighting and a poor sense of scale at times regarding the digital effects, but they hit far more than they miss. And in the end, whereas someone like Roland Emmerich and other Hollywood-based directors use disasters as a means to familial reconciliation (seriously, Emmerich has brought together more couples and families than the whole of the counseling profession), Director Yoon uses the tidal wave, for the most part, to both reconcile and show how the surviving characters accept and make the most of their new lease on life. In 2012, the only character who really changes is the daughter, and it’s purely biological in that by the time the credits roll, she is no longer in need of pull-ups. That’s not very cinematic. At all. So again, Haeundae lays the humor on thick and at some inopportune times, but you may appreciate it all by the film’s end. Give it a whirl on a big TV and have fun!