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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Typhoon (Tae-poong) 2005

Kwak Kyung-taek’s Typhoon was a major blockbuster that hit South Korean screens in the winter of 2005 and wound up with an impressive 4 million admissions. Kwak is no stranger to success, his autobiographical feature Friend (2001) was the highest-grossing film of its time when it attracted 8 million viewers across the peninsula with its tale of boyhood friends following different, and often violent, paths into adulthood. Typhoon reunites the director with Jang Dong-gum, a major star who, as well as Friend, has headlined blockbusters such as Taegugki (2004) and the forthcoming My Way (2011), he has also appeared in foreign language films such as China’s The Promise (2005) and New Zealand’s The Warrior’s Way (2010). The film also stars Lee Jung-jae another big star who has featured in Il Mare (2000) and The Housemaid (2010). Armed with a $15 million budget Kwak took his production across Asia, with various sequences of the film shot in Thailand, Singapore, Russia, and Seoul and Busan in South Korea.

The Vengeful Sin (Jang Dong-gum)
Like many Korean blockbusters that preceded it and those that would follow it, the film derives it central tension from the divide between the Koreas. In this narrative Jang portrays Sin, a North Korean defector who has become a pan-Asian outlaw seeking retribution against the whole peninsula and Lee ass Gang Se-jong, the top Navy operative enlisted to take him down. Throw in some nuclear materials, big ships, submarines, lots of explosions, and a heavy dollop of melodrama and what follows is a fairly standard and messy Korean actioneer. The results aren’t all bad though and as many other reviewers have noted, the production design and many of the set pieces are engaging, and of course the weepy sentimentality, so keenly perfected by Korean filmmakers, succeeds here even though it really shouldn’t.

It's clear that Kwak took a page or three out of Hollywood's book while he made this film. Examples like the Mission Impossible (1995) reference (magazine on the plane, like the 'recommended' movies of the MI franchise), the fancy, high-tech command center, and the general style of the mise-en-scene, are all reminiscent of America's big-budget summer movies. I mention this because what bothered me the most about the film was the lack of focus in its plot. The exposition was far from clear and at many points I found myself unsure of what was going on. I think this is a casualty of the blending of the American and Korean aesthetics and moviemaking styles.

Se-jong (Lee Jung-jae) is briefed a la Mission Impossible
After the success of Friend, Kwak has endured as one of Korea’s most successful directors. All of his films beside Mutt Boy (2003), have finished in the Top 10 for the Year, this streak is not likely to end any time soon with the imminent release the The Battle of Yellow Sea (2011), a hotly anticipated 3D action pic. At his best his films are very effective productions that combine technical skill, pathos, and action, Friend being the most popular example. My personal favorite is A Love (2007), which despite its overplayed Shakesperean dramatics, is a very well rounded piece of cinema and easily the most tightly plotted film in Kwak’s career. He seems to use the same devices and techniques in most of his work and I appreciate that he favors focusing on characters and their stories and uses these to heighten our investment in the action sequences that populate his narratives but with Typhoon this poses a problem. Sin’s sad story is well rendered and easy to understand, thus his motivations are clear but all the diplomatic and military wrangling between the Blue House, and other foreign powers, in addition to the terrorist plot that drives the film, are so haphazard and byzantine that they overwhelm what should be a fairly straightforward thriller. 

Knife fight in the belly of the ship 
Besides Sin’s backstory, Typhoon is also a film which focuses on two alpha males, both portrayed by huge stars with sculpted, masculine physiques. Just like John Woo’s old Hong Kong films, a major element is the friendship that potentially develops between them, even as they stick knives into each other (I could read into this, but I’ll leave it up to you). Se-jong is sympathetic to the plight of Sin and his sister but he cannot condone the terrorism that the outlaw plans to perpetrate, although he is also ill at ease with the dirty tactics employed by the Blue House (Korea’s White House). This potentially interesting relationship is not given enough time to develop and ends up as little more than an afterthought. During the climax, their relationship comes to a head in the belly of a cargo ship, but the subtleties have been glossed over and sidelined by the attempts to make this film a larger affair, replete with international and political overtones. 

I think that if Kwak had stuck with what he was good at, even if he can’t be very subtle about it, and had opted to tone down the political machinations that weigh down the film, Typhoon could have been an effective and engaging pan-Asian thriller. Instead the film is a bit of a mess, interspersed with some good moments and some great music but let down by a poor script and some bad decision-making. A little judicious editing wouldn’t have hurt either.

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