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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tidal Wave (Haeundae) 2009

A fair amount has been written about this film and very little of it is positive. At its core, Haeundae is a mawkish melodrama that serves as a convenient structure for Korea's first disaster film and once again a Korean filmmaker shows how adept and prone the industry is to making genre films. While it may not have worked for everyone, it was certainly effective as a genre picture. Haeundae is a beach town near the bustling Busan and our protagonists are mostly lower-class denizens (seamen, coast guards, merchants, etc.) who facilitate the wealthier vacationers that visit their town. Later, as a a tsunami hits the area, we are drawn into the tragic stories that befall them.

Chief among them is Man-Sik (Sol Kyung-gu) a hapless local who, during the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 inadvertently caused the death of a deep-sea fisher, who was the father of Yeon-Hee, his love interest. Man-Sik is a character that keeps popping up in Korean cinema, a well-meaning, middle-aged man who can really only be described as a bumbling idiot. Since the early 90s these characters have surfaced again and again, they represent the emasculation of a whole nation's males and seem incapable of reconstituting their masculine identity. Sol Kyung-gu has built his career on playing these characters. From his blistering performance in arthouse favorite Peppermint Candy (Bakha satang, 1999) to his portrayal of the inimitable Detective Kang Cheol-jung in the hugely popular Public Enemy series, he has become a star in Korea because many people can relate to his characters in some way. His contemporary, Song Kang-ho, has enjoyed a similar success for the very same reasons. Neither are particularly attractive men, they inhabit roles where they predominantly play bruisers who most often start and end their trajectories on the fringe of society.

The other screen veteran in Haeundae, Park Joong-hoon, was one of the first actors to portray these roles, all the way back to Two Cops (Tukabseu, 1993), incidentally one of the first films by Kang Woo-Suk, the director of the Public Enemy trilogy. His role as the scientist who tries to warn people about the coming tsunami falls more or less into the same category as Man-Sik. At first we see that he holds an impressive position but we quickly learn that he lost the woman in his life and his child doesn't even know who he is. Despite repeated protests to the proper authorities, his warnings are never taken seriously and the beach sirens are only activated when an emergency alarm is set off by a neighbouring country. Even though he has a good job and is good at what he does, no one will listen to him. Granted this is a typical generic trope in a disaster film but the fact that no professionals at any point listen to what he says, even when it's too late, is a little more pessimistic than usual.

Genre films have been something of a specialty in Chungmoro for quite some time now. After exhaustively exploring gangster comedies, romantic melodramas and high school dramas, some of the more prominent and daring Korean filmmakers, such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, took their chances on new genres not typically associated with Asian cinema. The results were Park's vampire effort Thirst (Bakjwi, 2009) and Kim's western The Good, The Bad and the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, 2008). Both were successful and well-received films that embraced and defied their respective genre's conventions. Haeundae follows along this Korean proclivity to embrace and reappropriate film genres and while it is by no means as interesting or as good as the previous efforts mentioned, it still manages to fully embrace a foreign genre and feels one hundred percent Korean. The fact that it is now the fourth highest grossing Korean film of all time only reinforces this.

Another point worth mentioning is the attention that was bestowed on the special effects in this film. Since Shiri (Swiri, 1998), Korean films have consistently improved their production values. For a while now, the nation's cinema has been among the worlds best for cinematography, lighting, production design, sound design and even film scoring. Despite a few spotty efforts, it seems that chungmoro has now conquered special effects too!

The last shot of the film, where the camera pans from Man-sik and Yeon-hee poring through her restaurant's wreckage to Haeundae's obliterated cityscape is difficult to analyze. On the one hand, the content of the scene, the music and the rapidly approaching sunset seem to indicate an optimistic ending, "life goes on" and such. However, I can't help but think that the camera is looking through the skyline to the roads behind it, which would suggest that Man-sik and others like him will still need to wander along a directionless road in search of a home and their identity.

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