Similar in too many ways to the overblown Taegukgi, Kwak Kyeong-taek’s foray into the mega-budget action blockbuster starts as an effective chase picture but stalls midway before collapsing under the weight of Kwak’s excessively tragic story and his heavy-handed method. With a production budget of at least $15 million, Typhoon is now the most expensive picture ever made in Korea. Earning about $25 million on domestic release, it can’t be considered an absolute economic failure and may well accumulate small profits after international sales and post-theatrical markets have come into play. In terms of serving as a glorious example of Kwak’s project management capacities and his technical filmmaking decisions, however, Typhoon falls short on numerous counts.
The biggest problem is structural. The first half of the movie scans like a James Bond thriller, with Lee excelling as the cold ambassador of national morality and Jang (surprisingly low-key for once) as the internally-tormented pirate. Small pieces of the overly cryptic plot are strung together between a host of visually and aurally arresting set pieces shot in various locales across the region: the open sea between Taiwan and Japan, the Blue House in Seoul, the floating market in Thailand, a dank candle-lit temple hemmed in the Thai jungle, a yachting regatta in Busan, a dockyard in Vladivostok, an abandoned fort somewhere in the Russian highlands. The pacing is intense, so much so that important story details get subordinated to visceral entertainment as soon as they arise. There’s pleasure to be had here, though, so it’s more the shame to soon realise that Kwak is just conditioning us to put up with the story he really wants to tell.
Things take a turn for the worse with the introduction of the pirate’s long-lost sister (an under utilised Lee Mi-yeon). Our iceman operative from the South softens up during conversations with her, especially when he learns about her and her brother’s awful past in an extended flashback. After fleeing from the North, the pair and their extended family are mistreated by the representative of the South Korean government in China in 1983 and taken back to the border with the North rather than the international airport and a chance to escape to the freer South. Soldiers from the North slaughter the rest of their family and even though the children escape they are forced to resort to depraved and inhumane acts in order to survive. The tragic irony is that just one year later, we’re told, the South began accepting Chinese-based refugees from the North. From this point onwards, we’re no longer dealing with an action movie, but yet another ‘brotherly’ epic concerned with the damaging psychological effects of the Korean peninsula’s national division. The special agent and the relentless pirate are henceforth portrayed as ships in the night hurtling toward each other on a collision course, with the impression that they are intimately alike rammed down our throats at every opportunity. Unfortunately, Typhoon opens itself quite transparently to the currently fashionable version of the national division metaphor, where the male leads represent the opposing North/South civilisations who tussle over the body of the sister, i.e. the unified nation, that is caught/shared/imagined between them.
Burdended with a heavy theme that has already oft been told, the remainder of the film suffers. Kwak becomes obsessed with painting the men as equally righteous brothers, the pirate as a voice lost in the wilderness who deserves recognition as a victim of a foreign relations disaster, the operative as an unyielding protector of the South’s innocent civilians and their fine national values. Before the commencement of the finale, the pirate becomes more and more withdrawn and isolated, perhaps demonstrating Kwak’s thoughts about the ultimate fate of the North as it continues to separate itself from the outside world. Meanwhile, the agent from the South assembles a special forces team, a group of wannabe heroes born with virtuous symbols of unity and teamwork tattooed on their hearts. Emphasising Kwak’s now wildly nationalist approach, the crack outfit comes together in the rain to salute the Republic of Korea flag (no other reference to Taegukgi could be more obvious), the type of moment that draws widespread derision in any Hollywood movie. Worst of all, Kwak draws out the final inevitable conflict to a ludicrous extent. North versus South go mano-a-mano in a knife fight on a bridge inside an exploding cargo vessel located in the centre of two mutually rotating typhoons. From somewhere ostensibly irrelevant, white strobe lighting occasionally flickers across the gladiators. To cap it all off, above their heads are numerous helium balloons carrying small canisters of nuclear fallout. Eventually, these start blowing up. Slow-motion video captures the machismo in all its sweaty, grotesque, passionate glory. Somewhere in the recesses of our bombshelled minds, we remember the exciting car chase shot with verve on the wide streets of Busan from earlier in the piece and struggle to come to terms with what the heck happened following such promising beginnings.
As the writer/director of Friend, Kwak is no stranger to the transparent national division metaphor. He’s proved that he knows very well how to stage the metaphor as a deadly struggle between men whose competing raisons d’etre unnecessarily pull them apart. You would think that he’s flogged that horse enough, but I guess if you’re going to encourage investors to give you $15 million dollars it pays to have a high and mighty cover story for your dumb histrionic action movie.