Haeundae (해운대, Yun Je-gyun: 2009)

Scientist Kim Hwi believes that a recent spate of earthquakes are signposts towards an impending disaster. As he puts together evidence for his theory, he tells everyone who should listen that there is crisis ahead. Do they listen? Of course they don’t! This is a disaster flick after all…

Some of the initial reviews for this big-budget (in Korean industry terms) disaster flick were unflinchingly negative, but the film was a blockbuster hit on its domestic release, so it was with a certain amount of uncertainty that I approached Haeundae. If the Korean films from recent years have worryingly and unevenly seen the industry trying to play the Hollywood game in terms of budget and special effects, then Haeundae (released in the UK as Tidal Wave) is actually one that succeeds pretty much across the board. Make no mistake about it, there’s no attempts to break new ground – by copying Hollywood-type disaster movies the filmmakers have also copied all of the tick boxes for the genre: the relationships which will be broken, the redemptive / sacrificial character, the mean characters that will get their come-uppance, the daft chase scenes. Haeundae is a full on disaster flick – but thankfully it’s one that’s also got a bit of charm in its big fat popcorn heart.

Haeundae has a charm about it that is missing from most big budget disaster films

These types of films – the countdown to an unstoppable disaster and then the destruction that follows – usually have their bum-numbing first half before we get to the good stuff – namely the destruction and CGI goodies that we saw on the trailer. Well, of course the impending disaster here is a bloody great tsunami wave (a ‘mega-tsunami’ no less, obviously the term ‘tsunami’ just doesn’t carry enough weight these days) and the cheesy, touchy-feely plot threads and the ‘lets get to know these characters before we make you feel bad by killing off one half of them and make you feel good about the other half of them that live’ aspect is present and correct. Rather than just being a waiting game for the main event though, Haeundae (the name refers to the beach front community where this is set) makes the impressive move of actually making this first part of the film good. In fact, it’s actually this first hour of the film which is the better part. Hokey they may be, but with a really very likeable cast who are given very little to do other than hook up into relationships which are inevitably to shortly be split up in different ways, Haeundae has a charm about it that is missing from most big budget disaster films. There’s a great line in humour throughout this first half – including the best (i.e. worst) sea rescue scene that had me laughing out loud, some good hearted face slapping (of course), and plenty of cheesy – but above all, fun – moments. None of it is exactly clomplex or taxing, but it works effortlessly without just feeling like a check list.

Haeundae looks great too, and the layering of the stories of the different characters in this first half is pretty well balanced – just look at the fireworks scene for a nice moment of the, literally, calm before the storm – most of the couples getting a ‘moment’ together. If this all sounds abit ‘nice’, it’s because it is. Sure, it’s still in the best blockbuster-popcorn-spirit, these are all your typical disaster characters (the drunk, the orphan, the divorcee, the whiny kid, etc) but played out in such a way that actually manages not to bore us before their world is turned upside down. In fact, the first half of Haeundae is so much fun that I think I might have actually groaned out loud when the grey clouds started forming and those big old waves started flooding in. In other words, the first half of the film does everything it’s supposed to do but rarely does – we’re interested in these characters and don’t want bad things to happen to them.

And then the wave came… a ‘mega’ one…

So for the second half of the film it is, of course, over to the tsunami itself. Which means over to the CGI. The surprise for me was just how good this looked. The special effects aren’t always quite 100% realistic, but for what will have been a tiny budget in comparison to its U.S. counterpart (but megabudget for a Korean flick, did I mention that?!) Haeundae doesn’t disappoint. While the story and set-pieces all go abit daft (as is the case in these things), effects-wise there’s some really good moments – often chilling, such as the almost freeze-frame moment that a father goes back for his daughter on the beach, or a group of survivors on a rooftop look across to an oncoming wave.

If the first hour of Haeundae fares well with its stock characters and situation set-up, the second half fares a lot less well, other than looking very cool and having a slick line in action. There’s the ususal outrunning of waves and flames, people in rooms filling up with water and managing to find each other fairly easily that is typical of the disaster film. Perfectly fine for the type of film, it’s just the silliness is highlighted all the more after the strong first half – for example, be advised that mobile phones will still work – with a strong signal – if you are trapped in an elevator. In fact, there’s no problems with phones at all, even if the electricity is out (because it’s electrocuting everyone who floats by). Yep, it’s silly (dodging debris on a bridge goes beyond daft),  but, yes, it’s just a bunch of dumb fun.

A slick production, Haeundae has a great cast (Sol Kyung-gu, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon and Eom Jeong-hwa all suckering us into this world with ease), some fantastic cinematography by Kim Young-ho and confident direction from Sex Is Zero director Yun Je-gyun. There’s alot more to enjoy from Haeundae than you might expect – just as long as that expectation isn’t more than your typical popcorn disaster flick, then you’ll be well away.

해운대 (Haeundae)
Directed by Yun Je-gyun
Produced by Yoon Je-kyoon, Lee Sang-yong, Gil Yeong-min
Written by Yoon Je-kyoon, Kim Hwi
Starring Sol Kyung-gu, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon, Eom Jeong-hwa, Lee Min-ki

Haeundae Image © JK FILM