Typhoon (태풍, Kwak Kyung-taek: 2005)

When a ship carrying parts of a nuclear warhead is hijacked and cargo stolen the South Korean government attempts to covertly step in and deal with the situation before it escalates into an international crisis. Soldier Gang Se-jong is ordered to investigate and track down the missing cargo  by any means, and finds himself involved in a chase to prevent a terrorist attack…

At the time of its release in 2005 Typhoon was the biggest budgeted film in Korean history. With Kwak Kyung-taek (Friend and Champion) in the directors chair, a story which tackles the subject of North and South Korea, Jang Dong-gun in a lead role and the luxury of filming in several different countries (including Thailand and Russia), the project must have seemed like a logical progression for the ever expanding Korean film industry and a sure-fire box-office hit. Upon its release the reception was luke-warm – the film under-performed domestically and although it was picked up for distribution in numerous territories the film hasn’t exactly received much acclaim, and in some instances has received really negative criticism. So where does Typhoon go wrong? Well there’s plenty to criticise Typhoon for, but firstly lets examine the positive elements…

In its defense the first thing to say is that Typhoon looks great. We’ve come to expect high quality production values from Korean filmmakers, and Typhoon is no exception. Some reviews have compared the film to a ‘Michael Bay’ type of experience, and as far as the sweeping cinematography, stunning sense of scale and all-round striking appearance, you can understand the comparison. Unashamedly seeking that big Hollywood blockbuster feel, Typhoon makes its mark as a slick, shiny and all-round fine looking film. You can see where most of that bug-budget went – it’s all up on the screen.

The second positive thing to say about Typhoon is that it has a full-on epic soundtrack. Again, this falls into line with the Hollywood-style aim – its BIG sounding, its emotional, its exciting. Did I mention that it’s BIG. Now some people may not always appreciate such a full-on, overblown musical track riding over a film, but it works with the visuals for the sense of scale. So with the visuals and the soundtrack covered,  Typhoon can also be praised for elements of its script. A suitably large-scale threat is at the centre of the film – the villain, a guy call Sin – hopes to kill all South Koreans. If that’s not thinking big, then I’m not sure what is. The reason the script is of interest is in its approach to the situation – instead of focusing on exactly ‘how’ this nasty plan will play out (its a little vague but involves balloons and a typhoon plus some nuclear ‘stuff’) – it largely focuses instead on the ‘why’ Sin wants to do this in the first place. This is where the North / South Korea storyline kicks in, and where the typical black and white lines are blurred. No-one is essentially ‘good’ in Typhoon, and no-one is essentially ‘bad’. Or maybe everyone is bad? Okay, that’s a little vague – the US, Russia, China and both Koreas all come in for some criticism in Typhoon, but of course the priority needs to be stopping that balloon plan before we can analyse the politcs (which, of course, never happens).

Finally, in Typhoons favour is Jang Dong-gun (Friend). Giving a decent enough performance as bad guy Sin, Typhoon really moves with some energy when Jang is onscreen over and above the roving camera. While any number of films derive their entertainment through an enjoyable bad guy, Jang gets to cut through the visuals to create a strong, if not particularly memorable, angry North Korean whose betrayal of his family by the South leads to a life of misery and anger. Sin is easily the closest thing the Typhoon has to a real character, and the spirited performance from Jang manages to handle some of the more clumsy plot elements and keep the whole thing on track.

So – if you like your films as pretty looking blockbuster-types with a soaring soundtrack, an interesting story and a colourful bad guy, then Typhoon is worth considering.

Sadly, that’s not the whole story with Typhoon. On the downside it has a fair number of more disappointing elements and some choices which work against it. Firstly, while Typhoon looks great the technically the great camera pans, editing and all-round large scale visuals fail to bring any real warmth to proceedings. There’s a militaristic approach even outside of the plot, a sense that the scale and just how BIG the whole thing is will win people over. It’s not entirely uninvolving, but the focus on visuals – especially some of the long effects shots which are designed to give a sense of scale – do occasionally distance the viewer from the story and serve to slow the pace. Secondly, that soundtrack is impressive but – like the visuals – serves to keep everything epic in scale. It’s never toned down for some of the very few personal moments throughout Typhoon, which results in the same kind of distancing as much as it ups the melodramatic elements. Thirdly, while the script has some interesting elements at its core and its uninterest in the standard details of the ‘criminal plot’ (and we’re spared a lengthy ‘how and why’ speech as a result) are to be praised, its also uneven and a bit of a mess. For the first twenty minutes or so we’re bombarded with detail and exposition, plenty of which is completely unnecessary. After this it settles into a nice pace and we can actually focus on some of the characters a little – before the final twenty minutes come along and stuff things up again with the standard action-movie finale and [MILD SPOILER] the two leads face each other in a way that we’ve seen a hundred – no, make that two hundred – times before – in a fight on a balcony with explosions in the background. Great. [END MILD SPOILER].

Finally – and most unforgivably – Typhoon squanders its central characters. The majority of the cast are either faceless ‘government types’ or equally faceless ‘terrorist-villian types’, but none of this would matter if the two leads – plus the sister of villian Sin – were given some roundedness. While the sister (a wasted – literally – Lee Mi-yeon) is reduced to a thin sub-plot when she should have been a third, stronger thread, it’s the lead role of Gang Se-jong (played by Lee Jung-jae, recently seen in the remake of The Housemaid) which is the most disappointing. The role is pretty empty and with a background that pretty much only amounts to the fact that he writes letters to his mother when he’s going into a dangerous situation and that he misses his dead father, Gang is a pretty cold character and there’s very little Lee Jung-jae can do to brighten him up. Instead it’s down to Jang Dong-gun as Sin, the villain of the piece, to make what he can of the closest thing Typhoon has to a real character.

If all of this sounds damning its because Typhoon could have been a strong blockbuster along the lines of the superior Secret Reunion but it unfortunately falls for the obvious pitfalls of the BIG Hollywood scale films that it tries to emulate. It’s a film that the Korean film industry probably needed to make – and to a degree its a success in terms of producing something of its size, it just fails on many other counts by doing so – however in covering the bigger picture it misses the smaller one. Typhoon doesn’t feel like a Kwak Kyung-taek film – anyone expecting the characters found in his earlier films will be disappointed despite reuniting him with Jang Dong-gun – and interestingly he followed this with the smaller scale A Love. Ultimately Typhoon disappoints not because of its attempts to be a blockbuster but because it – like so many blockbusters do – loses sight of the essential elements required to make it an engaging experience.

태풍 (Typhoon)
Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek
Produced by Yang Joong-gyeong, Park Seong-keun
Written by Kwak Kyung-taek, An Yeong-su
Starring Jang Dong-gun, Lee Mi-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Kim Ghab-son

Typhoon Image © ZININSA FILM