Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Roland Emmerich may have been king of the disaster film for a few days back in November, but he’s not the only one interested in cinematic mass destruction. Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, and Jan de Bont (where the hell did he go anyway?) have all shown us copious amounts of death and decimation on a large scale. But how many directors outside of the US engage in such wanton disregard for human life and building safety? Not very many as it turns out, but that very small international list has just grown by one. Yun Je-gyun has written and directed South Korea’s very first natural disaster epic, Tidal Wave (aka Haeundae)! And guess what. It’s better than Emmerich’s 2012. (In some ways…)
Tidal Wave opens with a small fishing boat caught in the enormous residual swells from the devastating 2004 tsunami. The Korean fishermen are being rescued by helicopter but one of them dies in the process. Quick jump five years later and we meet the folks who’ll soon be struggling to survive the titular water wall approaching the Korean resort city of Haeundae. You’ll want to pay attention to these peeps because you’re stuck with them for the first hour of the movie with nary a single frame of CGI to distract you from their characters. That’s right. The tidal wave doesn’t hit until 60 minutes into a 100-minute movie. That’s called having faith in your actors and in your screenplay. (It’s also called having a limited budget.)
Yeon-hee is the daughter of the ill-fated fisherman from the opening, and she runs a ramshackle street ‘restaurant’ by the beach. (She’s also very cute and can be seen giving you the stink-eye in the pic above.) Man-sik is a fisherman with two secrets, the first being that his negligence was responsible for the death of Yeon-hee’s father and the second being that he has a crush on her. (Err, good luck with that.) Eok-jo is a city councilman trying to clear out the smaller shops/restaurants in order to to put in fancy tourist destinations and condos. A local Coast Guard recruit named Hyung-sik finds himself falling for a snotty girl named Hi-mi who may just be falling for his pedestrian ways too. And then there’s the scientist, Kim-hwi. (There’s always a scientist isn’t there?) He’s the one who sees the signs of the impending disaster and struggles to find a way to warn the population… something he may have done a better job at if he wasn’t distracted by a bitchy ex-wife and a daughter who doesn’t even know him. As with any disaster pic it’s a guarantee that not all of these characters are going to make it to the end credits, but you may be surprised by who lives and who dies.
The extra time spent getting to know the characters is important because once the tidal wave actually hits you may not be that impressed with the CGI. It doesn’t look bad necessarily, but it’s nowhere near the quality we’ve come to expect from disaster flicks coming out of Hollywood. Part of the problem is probably due to the immense amount of CGI water required, and water remains the most difficult thing to animate believably. Shots of birds flying away overhead and crabs crawling out of the ocean en masse are well done, but many of the water shots have a dull and lifeless look to them. The practical effects however are quite impressive… from various stunts to the flooding of a whole street filled with cars and people, the in-camera effects help ratchet up the tension considerably.
Most of this review deals with the people in Tidal Wave because they’re the real strength of the film. The effects are fine, but the characters manage to squeeze ten times the emotion you felt for any of the yahoos in Emmerich’s 2012. Granted, ten times zero still isn’t a lot but it helps to make the movie engaging and interesting for more than just the effects. (And yes I know that ten times zero is still zero.) There are scenes of real loss here, often surprising and occasionally moving, but you need to remember this is a Korean movie. They never met a dramatic scene they couldn’t manipulate into pure melodrama, so along with the heartfelt goodbyes and agonies you’ll also find perhaps the longest scene of self-sacrifice ever committed to celluloid. Seriously, the guy (spoiler!) is doing a brave thing to save someone else but spends almost five minutes furrowing his brow and spouting sonnets or some such before finally sacrificing himself… it was enough to make you wish a Megashark would leap out of the water and bite his ass in half already.
Tidal Wave is a mildly entertaining movie populated with characters you might find yourself caring about (admittedly, if you’re like me the one you’ll care about most is the cute girl, but that’s not a bad thing). The effects are a mixed bag and rest comfortably somewhere between Emmerich’s usual output and that of the SyFy channel. In addition to the melodrama the Koreans are also prone to uneven tones and this is no different… slapstick comedy is found moments before tragedy strikes and serious scenes of physical abuse can be immediately followed by goofy expressions and one-liners. It’s not nearly as jarring here as it is in some Korean flicks, but newcomers to K-cinema may be put off by it. Fans of disaster movies should check it out as a pretty good example of how to integrate characters into a spectacle film, but I’d expect for most viewers there just won’t be enough bang for their won.