A massive fire engulfs a South Korean skyscraper on Christmas Eve, trapping numerous partygoers.

Action goes sky high in South Korean disaster film.

As the planet’s most on-line nation and home to Jaebol powerhouses Samsung, LG and Hyundae, it shouldn’t come as news to anyone that South Korea is fond of technology. Accordingly, the commercial streams of the South Korean film industry also have a love affair with special effects. Even South Korean romantic comedies and crime thrillers squeeze in CGI expertise, but the nation’s hunger for 'disaster movies’ pushes for bigger and better effects.

The Tower isn’t a film of pat retribution

The Towering Inferno was the pinnacle of the original 1970s Hollywood disaster cycle. Unlike those star-studded, but largely impersonal blockbusters, the South Korean disaster cycle, tends to use real-life events as point of departure. Both Traces of Love and Haeundae were inspired by real life events (the collapse of Sampoong Department store and Typhoon Rusa, respectively). Similarly, The Tower is probably inspired by the blaze that engulfed Haeundae’s Golden Suites apartments in 2010. This pre-existing emotional connection to real-life tragedy is fanned by the multi-thread approach of the soap operas adored by Korean audiences, which provides audiences the opportunity to bond with any if not all of the film’s myriad characters.

The script by Kim Sang-don (Taeguki) cribs from The Towering Inferno with its opening night party function for the rich and the filthy rich – but also offers a wider cross section of Korean society. Rather than just the rich above and working class firemen below, The Tower also covers the lives of hard-working hospitality staff, a cleaner and a not-so-lucky lotto winner whose prize was a luxury apartment.

More caring than their superiors, all of the apartment block’s support staff are aware of the building’s deadly flaws from the start. While the building is clearly a disaster waiting to happen, it is a grand gesture that goes wrong – choreographed helicopters dropping snow over a VIP rooftop garden party – that triggers the full-scale catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the architect, a construction tycoon, a corrupt politician, and his arrogant dog-toting wife – despicable characters one and all – are convinced that money will protect them from destruction. But The Tower isn’t a film of pat retribution. Casualties occur on both sides of the class divide and the script is pragmatic enough to accept that evil is not always punished.

Most of the characters are broadly drawn, but the performances breathe plausible life into them. The central, tentative romance revolving around single dad, security supervisor Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyeong) and hospitality leader Ms Seo (Son Ye-jin) is miraculously lively and refreshingly tender. Similarly, the heroic Fire Chief Kang (Seol Kyeong-gu) whose relationship to his work is stronger than his marriage to his wife, is convincing, despite bordering on cliché. These characterisations sustain the narrative as the script repeatedly ties itself in knots trying to get one more spectacular scene out of its scenario. There’s no denying logic is often a casualty in this film, but impressive set pieces splendidly executed by director Kim Ji-hoon (May 18) and glossy production design ensure that the film’s entertainment value never burns itself out.


2 hours 1 min