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Costly disaster


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POSTED: Friday, October 02, 2009

Every disaster movie is really two movies, “;Before”; and “;During.”; Or, “;Preamble”; and “;Main Event.”;

You have to introduce the characters, hopefully make viewers care about them, establish tenuous links between them, then suddenly plunge them into some sort of a cataclysm in which they fight for survival. It's a formula, sure, but it's one that works because we're all curious how we'd behave if we were thrust into a “;During”; in real life. In actual real life, we're all in a “;Before.”;

The architecture of movies has become the primary storytelling medium of the last century, but the disaster flick has only been around 30 years or so. Previously, similar films—“;A Night to Remember,”; “;The Devil at Four O'Clock,”; “;The Last Days of Pompeii”;—were retellings of historical events, or the disaster itself was a “;deus ex machina”; gimmick to keep the plot popping. “;Airport”; in 1970 created the outline for all such films since.

               

     

 

”;HAEUNDAE”;

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Opens today in theaters

       

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Why then? By 1970, real disasters had been brought into our living rooms via television news, and the state of Hollywood special effects became mature enough to make what appeared on the screen real—or realistic enough to suspend disbelief.

Disaster movies have taken a while to gain footholds in popular culture overseas, and “;Haeundae”; is billed as South Korea's first such film. It came about exactly as it should have, a what-if reverie by director JK Youn. A celebrated creator of Korean knockabout comedies, Youn was horrified by the 2004 tsunamis in Southeast Asia and wondered what would happen if a major tidal surge overwhelmed Korea's most popular beach resort.

Haeundae is a real location, a lovely curved beach framed by monster hotels thrown up in a frenzy of real-estate speculation in the last couple of decades. The movie could have easily been called “;Waikiki.”;

Youn's movie, apparently the most expensive ever filmed in Korea, follows the disaster formula to the letter, with one notable stylistic change. It moves effortlessly from one character and story line to another, establishing connections and situations, while in the background, one concerned government scientist keeps needling his superiors about the consequences of a giant wave. Naturally, he's ignored.

There's no point in rehashing the various plot lines, because they all come awry when the Big One hits, and that's the whole point, isn't it? Sul Kyung-gu as a drunken fisherman with a guilty conscience and Ha Ji-won as a lovely, pragmatic dockside cafe proprietress make the most impact, however.

The odd thing about the film is that despite all the horror and mayhem, it's filmed as broad physical comedy, and it's often very funny, which simply feels weird. Maybe we're conditioned by Hollywood disaster films, which are basically soap operas.

If the Three Stooges had starred in “;Titanic,”; you'd have “;Haeundae.”; That's no disaster, although you'd have a hard time sympathizing with the characters unless you're a Howard brother, nyuck nyuck.