Haeundae, a popular holiday spot on the East Sea coast of the Korean peninsula, draws over one million visitors to its beaches every year. Man-sik, a native of Haeundae lost his co-worker in a tsunami four years ago, but now he leads a simple life running a small sushi shop and is preparing to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Yeon-hee. Meanwhile, a tsunami researcher Kim Hwi discovers the East Sea is showing signs of activity similar to the Indian Ocean at the time of the 2004 tsunami. Despite his warnings, the Disaster Prevention Agency affirms that Korea is in no harm"¦ yet a deadly wave is coming with only ten minutes to spare. While the vacationers enjoying a peaceful hot summer day, a mega-tsunami is headed straight for Haeundae.


Insensitive real-life references make this Korean disaster epic a washout.

South Korean cinema has left a distinctive mark on the global arthouse and festival circuit in recent years by interpreting commercial genres through indigenous sensibilities.

Joon-ho Bong’s Gwoemul (The Host, 2006) applied the monster movie format to the pollution of Seoul’s Han River; Je-gyu Kang’s Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood, 2004) sent two brothers into the Korean War, resulting in Saving Private Ryan-like complications and rousing battle scenes; and director Chan-wook Park’s episode of the portmanteau film Sam gang yi (Three Extremes, 2004) – entitled 'Cut’ – is as good an example as any of the originality of the K-horror genre, which has influenced so many others abroad.

And now a South Korean filmmaker has taken a shot at the large-scale disaster movie – the kind that shameless showman Irwin Allen made a fortune from in the 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972; The Towering Inferno, 1974) before he passed the torch to another shameless showman, Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 1996; Godzilla, 1998; The Day After Tomorrow, 2004; and the upcoming 2012, 2009).

In adopting the conventions of the disaster epic, Je-gyun Yun’s Haeundae displays none of the bold, stylistic flourishes that have set South Korean genre cinema apart. His epic, silly tidal-wave melodrama follows the template of the Western disaster opus to the letter.

Yun’s film takes place in an instantly-recognisable location – the real-life beachside resort of Haeundae, where up to a million South Korean holidaymakers flock during the warmer months. Characters are established in the broadest terms and all have a singular purpose: Choi Man-sik (Sul Kyung-gu) wants to marry Kang Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won), the daughter of the man he was unable to save during the 2004 tsunami; Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon) is a bookish marine geometrist who tries in vain to convince his superiors that underwater earthquakes off the coast spell disaster, just as his estranged wife Lee Yoo-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa) and daughter head for Haeundae; and lifeguard Choi Hyung-sik (Lee Min-ki), younger brother of Man-sik, falls for the pretty if slightly nutty Kim Hi-mi (Kang Ye-won). Others in the mix include a ruthless land developer (a stoic Song Jae-ho) and a dim-witted no-hoper (Oh Dong-choon, who features in the film’s major effects set piece, atop the landmark Gwangan Bridge).

All of the characters amount to a convoluted mish-mash of one-dimensional stereotypes. The perfunctory nature of their interactions, from ill-judged slapstick to an over-reliance on too-cute kids, honours the multi-character set-ups of Irwin Allen’s best work. But the 'Master of Disaster’ also delivered some awful films – The Swarm, 1978; Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, 1979; and When Time Ran Out, 1980 – and it is these cornball eye-rollers that Haeundae most resembles.

Haeundae has been enormously successful domestically, where its mega-budget special effects and cover worthy cast received a torrent of publicity. In the wash-up, the visual effects are okay but not great. The American company Polygon Entertainment (which provided the water effects for The Day After Tomorrow, as we are told repeatedly in the film’s publicity material) shared the VFX duties with Korean-based MoFac Studio, and the results are sometimes incongruous and unconvincing. The most exciting aspects of the film are its large live-action set pieces, including the flooding of the market district and a high-rise rescue.

However, the filmmakers’ decision to reference and recreate specific images from the 2004 tsunami disaster is troubling; director Yun has openly admitted that his inspiration for the film was the devastating tidal surge that killed thousands in South-East Asia. He strives for gruesome authenticity in scenes that replicate flooded streets jammed with the floating dead and in another, we see the impact of a 50-metre wave on a young woman trapped in her car. Completely unnecessary and entirely exploitative is the extended sequence involving the two lead characters struggling to get out of the water before an electrical transmitter-box falls in – the convulsive, repulsive impact upon those who do not make it out in time is entirely out of place in a film that has been little more than lightweight melodrama up to that point.

At the least the cold-hearted corporates in Hollywood waited for over 60 years before turning the tragedy of the Titanic into a schmaltzy teen romance. No such respect for the 2004 tsunami victims is displayed by the South Korean film industry – five years on, the most devastating natural disaster to ever impact the region becomes fodder for soap-opera posturing and B-movie plotting.

There are cheap thrills to be had from the spectacular destruction of the Pusan coastline, and a modicum of tension is generated in scenes involving the heroic actions of the leads. But with too many climaxes to enable suspended disbelief for 117 minutes, Haeundae embodies the worst aspects of the waning disaster-movie genre.

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1 hour 57 min
In Cinemas 01 January 1970,
Wed, 02/10/2010 - 11