The Tower is South Korea’s first attempt at a full-on disaster movie, and overall it’s pretty good but does bear a strong resemblance to the Hollywood pic The Towering Inferno, widely seen as the peak title in this 1970s movie subgenre.
It’s also the latest film from director Kim Ji-hoon, whose most recent pic was the underwater-monster feature Sector 7, which did big business at the box-office.
Christmas Eve in Seoul sees the public debut of the Tower Sky, a twin-towers skyscraper of 108 storeys each. It’s a beautiful night on which the beautiful people celebrate a new landmark to South Korea’s galloping prosperity. What could possibly go wrong on such an occasion?
Well, as it turns out — quite a lot!
A P/R stunt goes horribly amiss and one of the towers is engulfed by flames at Level 63. The elevators are deathtraps and the stairways are soon blocked by falling masonry. The inferno, now petrol-fueled, is racing skywards towards luxury apartments and function rooms where Asia’s elite has gathered to party on and see in the first hours of Christmas day.
The requisite time is spent setting up the film’s characters and in true disaster movie tradition they are lightweight and paper-thin, thus being eminently combustible when the storyline heats up.
The local firefighters are the heroes and led by the gallant Chief Young Ki (Seol Kyeong-gu). The bloody-mindedness of the towers’ corporate owners and lackeys is obvious early on and is no surprise to the viewers. But we do follow two River View Tower workers Seo Yoon-Hee (Son Ye-jin) and Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyeong) as they traverse a building which is burning up and falling down around them. Ha-na is Lee’s cliché-riddled young daughter who is supposed to be innocent, cute and always in danger. Personally, I found her to be obnoxious, outspoken and never in enough danger.
Most of the film’s humour is laboured and not very funny, except for a short scene involving a frenzied plea for an “iron stick”: the result is so off-the-wall it approaches Monty Python status.
The blunt reality of the disaster film is: sooner or later the audience wants its visceral fill of death and destruction. The action sequences and the CGI in The Tower have combined to provide some outstanding and breathless passages of exciting cinema. Two standout sequences are the following: helicopters crashing into the tower and gouging their way through steel and glass, and the Skybridge where glass pathways crack underfoot and people are trapped in a blazing vortex. For my money, these perfectly realised scenes of screen terror are worth the price of a ticket, and should be seen on the big screen for full effect.
Ultimately, it’s the engineers on the ground who pass sentence on the burning tower: it must be destroyed to save its twin. This begins a deadly countdown for the remaining victims imprisoned inside the doomed skyscraper.
The final ten minutes of The Tower really drag the pic down, as it melts into puddles of movie treacle. The wailing music and unending slow motion create a cheap sentimentality that the audience could well have done without.