Haeundae just became one of the highest-grossing Korean films in history, but the only thing that sets it apart from all the other big disaster movies is that everyone happens to be speaking Korean. Not even the high-wattage cast and one of the largest budgets ever for a Korean film can save Haeundae from the overwrought melodrama, clichéd characters, and inconsistent effects that have long been a staple of the disaster genre. It just happens that there's more of it here than usual.
Fortunately, Haeundae, which is named after a coastal town near Busan, is not a total disaster. Writer-director Yoon Je-Kyun, who brought cinematic masterpieces such as Sex is Zero and My Boss My Hero to the silver screen, uses broad slapstick comedy to set up his large ensemble cast, with most of the silliness spent on a romance between clumsy, naive coast guard Hyung-Sik (Lee Min-Ki) and young tourist Hee-Mi (Kang Ye-Won). Dramatically, the film is anchored by Man-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu), a single father with a torturous past involving a deadly incident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which also killed the father of his longtime girlfriend Yeon-Hee (Ha Ji-Won).
This wouldn't be a disaster film without a scientist who sees it all coming before everyone else does, and Park Joong-Hoon fills that role nicely as Kim Hwi, a geologist juggling his job and his personal life. On one hand, he has to warn his stubborn superiors of the dangers of the coming tsunami, while he also has to deal with his ex-wife Yoo-Jin (Uhm Jung-Hwa), who has arrived in Haeundae on a business trip with their young daughter. Surprisingly, the daughter doesn't even know that Kim Hwi is her father.
Despite spending over an hour to introduce the characters and their inter-crossing stories, while using very few visual effects, the first half of Haeundae is mostly entertaining. Using efficient, though sometimes overactive editing, Yoon plays in familiar territory, mixing comedy with a fair amount of melodrama in an economical manner. There's even a touching "everyone is connected"-style montage involving a fireworks display that is easily one of the highlights of the first half. While the characters and their situations are not particularly memorable, Haeundae does a good job when compared to other disaster film set-ups.
However, as the saying goes, IT ALL GOES TO HELL. Yoon is clearly out of his comfort zone when the disasters that Kim Hwi predicted finally arrive in the form of a major earthquake and a mega tsunami. The set-up, featuring a particularly gruesome scene involving a bird, is suitably creepy, but Haeundae fails to even deliver its selling point. Yoon's climax is an exploding load of money shots (no euphemisms here) that sacrifice consistency and logic. There's no denying that some of the money shots, including the actual wave and the havoc it wreaks, are breathtaking at points, but water effects have proven to be so tough to perfect that even the film's American effects crew have trouble making the huge waves look convincing. On the other hand, the practical effects, such as those showing water engulfing entire city streets, prove that there was plenty of Korean won thrown at the screen.
Despite its inconsistencies, it's hard to deny that Haeundae possesses impressive spectacle during its second half. However, the spectacle is often overwhelmed by overwrought melodrama that's excessive even for this genre. At multiple points throughout the climax, characters not only simultaneously decide to announce the one last thing they have to say before they die, but they also waste a lot of time saying it. It's as if facing a tsunami will suddenly cause everyone to start speaking in a dramatic, measured pace. Tragic and largely emotional moments are spoiled by unnecessary dialogue and overly dramatic pauses so excessive that the characters could've actually been saved had they not taken the time to set up their last words.
By the end of the film's protracted climax, Yoon comes off as shameless, with his focus hopping between extensive scenes of tear-inducing tragedy and the destruction of a whole lot of stuff via special effects. He's even too lazy to wrap up the story in a satisfying and tonally-appropriate manner, as the film quickly jumps from its extended disaster set piece to a rushed ending that tries to mix both tragedy and the wonders of true love into one five-minute epilogue. This comes after Yoon pulls off an impressively fluid transition between the film's lighthearted first half and its deadly-serious second half. It almost seems like Yoon lost interest when he didn't have enough money to extend the disaster sequence and quickly wrapped up the script in a fit of dissatisfaction.
The rushed ending is especially unfortunate because in spite of being a dumb, loud commercial film, Haeundae mostly succeeds in the early going, injecting surprising humanity and charm into its desperate-to-please first half. When the impersonal force of nature strikes, Yoon has convinced us to care about these clichéd characters. However, he ironically loses us because of the film's major selling point - the special effects. A huge wave on a small Korean town may cost US$16 million to pull off, but Yoon should know by now that sensible pacing and logical scriptwriting don't cost a cent. In all fairness, people pay good money to see stuff wiped out in disaster films, and Haeundae is shamelessly successful in that department. At least, more so than D-War was.
(Kevin Ma, 2009)