Review: Haeundae (2009)

Haeundae is this year’s enormous Korean film: a big-budget blockbuster, it sold more than ten million tickets domestically, the first film to do so since The Host a couple of years ago. It’s also apparently Korea’s first disaster film, and takes as its subject the idea of a megatsunami threatening Haeundae Beach, which sees millions of visitors a year.

The film follows several sets of characters living in Haeundae: there’s Man-sik (Sol Kyung-gu), a local who looks after Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won) after her father was lost in a deep-sea fishing occident during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. She runs an unlicensed seafood restaurant and works hard to scrape a living. Hee-mi (Kang Ye-won) is a young, well-off college student from Seoul, holidaying and partying with friends in Haeundae. She falls over the side of a yacht and is rescued, albeit in a rather unexpectedly violent fashion, by Man-sik’s younger brother Hyeong-sik (Lee Min-ki).

Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon) is the geologist who knows the score: he’s been watching earthquake activity increasing in the Sea of Japan, but no-one will listen to him: bureaucrats ignore his warnings and ask him not to use the word “megatsunami”, as it makes people nervous. He’s recently bumped into his ex-wife Yoo-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa) and their daughter, who doesn’t know Hwi is her father.

We watch these characters as their relationships grow and change, while seismic activity in the Sea of Japan continues to ramp up. Soon, Hwi’s predicted megatsunami forms and a gigantic wave heads at speed towards Korea, with only ten minutes’ warning.

In some ways, Haeundae has the sort of abrupt tonal shifts I’m used to seeing in Hong Kong film (and those more well-versed in Korean film have assured me that it’s even more standard there.) Yes, it’s a disaster survival movie, but it’s not the grim muscular thriller you might expect from the Hollywood blockbuster machine. The first hour of this film jolts us rapidly between somber foreshadowing, romantic drama and some surprisingly broad slapstick comedy: there’s even a scene after the tsunami hits that plays all that CGI processing time for pure visual laughs. It makes the film unpredictable, and a lot more fun (so long as you’re not there just for the cars sliding into buildings.) After the tsunami arrives, though, the film develops a more consistent tone: disaster has struck, and survival against incredible odds becomes the order of the day. The CGI is generally well-done, and some of the visuals later in the piece as seawater rushes though the streets are striking.

Overall, I found Haeundae a little bit fragmented: the story is split between a lot of characters, some of which are more interesting than others, and some of the acting is quite variable. Nonetheless, it’s got some unexpectedly funny moments, some lovely visuals, and a solid punch of melodrama for those who like that sort of thing. See it and be nervous at the beach for the rest of the summer!

7.5 shipping containers falling from heaven out of 10.
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