Directed by: Je-gyun Yun
Starring: Kyung-gu Sol, Ji-won Ha, Joong-Hoon Park, Jeong-hwa Eom
In the very large shadow cast by 2012, there was at least one other noteworthy disaster movie released during 2009. A South Korean production, Haeundae (a.k.a. Tidal Wave or Tsunami) is a low budget effort in comparison with Emmerich’s juggernaut (hey, most movies are!) but is nevertheless a quite entertaining piece of disaster melodrama.
Taking its original title from its setting, the Haeundae district of the city of Busan, the film centers on ex-fisherman Man-sik, and Yeon-hee, a young woman who runs a beachfront restaurant. Man-sik is obviously in love with Yeon-hee who equally obviously loves him right back, but their relationship is complicated by the fact that Man-sik was responsible for her father’s death in an accident on a fishing boat a few years ago — something Yeon-hee is not aware of.
And as in any disaster flick worth its salt, these two are surrounded by a large cast of supporting characters featuring, among others, a businessman intending to revamp the beachfront area and get rid of the small restaurants and shops that flourish there; a lifeguard and the pretty but annoying girl he rescues after a boating accident; Man-sik’s no-good friend Dong-soon and his mother; and of course A Scientist who tries to warn everyone of the impending disaster (and who is equipped with a hostile ex-wife and their little daughter).
The first hour is entirely devoted to melodrama, and while the movie is in no hurry to get where its going, this is also the part that actually gives the film its personality. The straight drama is mixed with broad comedy and some general quirkiness in a way you rarely see in western productions of this kind, and actually serves to make you care a bit about these characters (yeah, the tiny detail that Emmerich forgot about). That goes a long way, as the plot itself can’t be said to be very original.
A series of earthquakes between Japan and Korea finally set off a mega-tsunami, leaving the people of Haeundae with only minutes to get to safety. Mass-panic erupts as a huge wall of water hits, actually toppling some of the skyscrapers like dominoes. While the visual effects aren’t as impressive as in 2012 (no surprise there, as this film was made for about 5% of 2012‘s budget) most of them still look quite nice, and there are some good OTT ideas here — like the sequence where a huge cargo ship gets stuck on a bridge, raining heavy containers down on the unfortunate survivors below. (How Man-sik’s useless friend Dong-soon manages to survive this barrage, along with an explosion tearing the bridge in half and not one but two massive tidal waves is not entirely clear…)
Another thing that gives this film a different flavor than its Hollywood cousins is how it handles the emotional scenes. The director milks every self-sacrifice and every featured fatality for all its worth: there’s no end to the screaming and crying. You may think that’s exactly what Hollywood usually does, but not this way; there’s a different pathos to the desperation here. Somewhat strange for western audiences used to the standardized brand of sentimentality, but not necessarily less appropriate when you think about it. I mean, how many of us would actually meet our fate with steely resolve and a quip?
While not groundbreaking, Haeundae comes at you from a slightly different direction than you might be used to, and I for one enjoyed it quite a bit. Give it a try.