Sector 7 (7광구, Kim Ji-hoon: 2011)

A team working on a sea rig off of the southern tip of Jeju Island fails in their attempts to find oil. When a member of senior management arrives on board it appears that the operation is to be closed down but, surprisingly, they are instead given several more months to continue their work. The initial elation turns to fear a members of the crew is found dead. At first appears that there may be a murderer on-board, but then a crew member swears that this is the work of a monster. Stranded from the rest of the world the rig workers must try to stay alive and understand exactly what it is that they are dealing with…

It’s safe to say that initial expectations for Sector 7 were pretty high. Written and produced by Haeundae director Yun Je-gyun, and with Kim Ji-hoon (May 18) undertaking directorial duties, Sector 7 takes a handful of more than capable actors – including Ha Ji-won (Duelist) and veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki (Silmido), nonetheless – and a not-to-be-sniffed-at $10 million budget and attempts to launch a 3D filmmaking market domestically. With The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) still reigning as the largest grossing Korean film in history (and a rare international success to boot), Sector 7‘s monster-movie premise must have looked right on paper, ticking plenty of those boxes which have previously delivered commercial success. Despite becoming the highest grossing Korean film released in China (beating previous record holder 200 Pounds Beauty) and reportedly being pre-sold for record figures to forty-six different countries, Sector 7 still managed to sink quicker than a dead sea monster when reviews and word-of-mouth suggested that far from being the next Host that the film was a stinker. Now that the hype has faded, is Sector 7 the monster failure that some have suggested?

Sector 7 doesn’t start well. An unconvincing and uninvolving prologue set 1985 is a sign of things to come – clearly working with green-screen and some unremarkable CGI effects there’s a noticeable lack of atmosphere as a routine dive uncovers something strange under the ocean. Without establishing any kind of tone we then jump to 2011 where a similarly unconvincing action scene introduces us to the crew of the rig. Initially it’s a surreal experience – watching characters run around a set with CGI background with the soundtrack soaring as if we’re experiencing a remarkable and joyous event. The scene ironically ends with a thumbs up – and by this point it’s clear that Sector 7 has issues that run as deeply as the sea its based in.

It’s left to the brilliant Ahn Sung-ki as the sneaky Lee Jeong-man to recognise the benefit to hamming it up a bit

Producer by Yun Je-gyun is clearly reusing his already well-worn disaster template with Sector 7 – like Haeundae before it, he opts for the ‘character drama’ first half followed by the ‘everything goes to hell’ second half. This is all well and good except that in order for this to work properly you need to be able to create a group of characters who are likeable enough to spent forty minutes or so with before the real drama even kicks in. That halfway mark is the point at which we should have established our dramatic beats and know whose death would be sad, whose would be (in film terms) deserved. We will know which will characters require a moment of catharsis and those whom will end the journey with regret. Sector 7 has none of this – mainly due to the fact that it has no real characters. Ha Ji-won tries to make her central character Cha Hae-joon into a strong an ‘action woman’ role, but she’s fighting for a decent script, a suitable tone and something to actually do other than look tough more than she’s fighting the monster. Oh Ji-ho flits around as Cha’s love-interest, and although he has even less to do it seems that he’s even less bothered about it and runs on auto-pilot. Park Jeong-hak follows up his amazing and under-rated performance as the husband from hell in Bedeviled (Jang Cheol-soo, 2009) to appear here as the Captain of the rig. He’s given almost nothing to do and is probably the biggest waste of the whole film. It’s left to the brilliant Ahn Sung-ki as the sneaky Lee Jeong-man to recognise the benefit to hamming it up a bit, although even he seems a little bewildered. With no real characters and no personal dramas Sector 7 comes up short using the disaster or monster movie templates. There’s not even a dog. How can you have a monster-come-disaster flick with no dog?

So what about the monster of Sector 7? A suspenseful monster or disaster movie can hold off on the action for a good while (The Host throws the monster out there just a few minutes after the opening credits) but Sector 7 is not a suspenseful films and yet, despite flaunting the monster in the trailer, there’s a good forty-five minute wait before we get some monster action. Yawn. Once it’s on screen though, it’s monster all the way – there’s plenty of CGI scenes, attacks and chases. Unfortunately though, it never really works. It might be that the monster attacks occasionally look like badly animated Playstation game cut-scenes, it might be the lack of breathing space in the script which to give the actors anything to do other than look scared and run away, it might be the editing which feels like they just left everything in because they’d paid for the effects, but none of this really gels. Maybe it looked amazing in 3D (!), but it doesn’t work as a film.

Okay, so clearly Sector 7 can be criticised with a long list of its problems – and its biggest crime is certainly its lack of humour – but if approached with any preconceptions put aside (or at least think less The Host and think much more low-budget straight-to-DVD action flick) then there is actually some fun to be had. The writer and director have clearly seen their fair share of monster movies – it’s fun spotting references to the likes of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and, of course, The Host – but that doesn’t mean that they’ve actually learnt anything from them. If there’s anything to be gained from the lack of logic, lousy special effects (with possibly the worst green-screen enhanced motorcycle races committed to film), a woefully pathetic attempt at creating a strong female character (who depends on men), it’s that it very quickly becomes unintentionally funny – and therefore very amusing. If Sector 7 was made on a fraction of the budget it would be an admirable fail, given its actual budget it’s a disaster happening in front of your eyes. Sector 7 is a lesson on-screen that a large budget and accessibility to cutting-edge technology does not guarantee a good film. Underlining some of the reasons why the real ‘blockbusters’ that have emerged from Korean in the last couple of years have been the lower and mid-budget films, Sector 7 is a lesson to be learnt. As a bonus, it’s a must-see for fans of bad movies…

7광구 (Sector 7)
Directed by Kim Ji-hoon
Produced by Yoo Je-kyun
Written by Yoon Je-kyoon, Kim Hwi
Starring Ha Ji-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Oh Ji-ho, Park Jeong-hak, Song Sae-byeok

Sector 7 Image © JK FILM, CJ E&M Pictures