Haeundae -- Film Review

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
BUSAN, South Korea -- In "Haeundae," which makes history as Korea's first-ever disaster movie, the country's second-biggest city, Busan, is the stage for a fictional tsunami.

Director Yoon Je-kyun wades through familiar waters when providing overlong human dramas as the film's narrative backbone. The payoff finally comes in the last 45 minutes, which whips up a satisfying tempest of visual and special effects as well as tap into a general apocalyptic mentality in the wake of the global financial tsunami.

The $13 million production by CJ Entertainment, one of the most expensive in Korea, opened July 22. With a deluge of 869 screens nationwide, more than 1.5 million admissions over three days were reported. With Hans Uhlig ("The Perfect Storm," "The Day After Tomorrow") on board as CGI supervisor, "Haeundae" is able to deliver Hollywood-caliber visual spectacles tailor-made to fit into a richly localized setting for the Korean audience. The film has been presold to 22 countries and in a rare move is targeted for a wide release in China as early as late August as part of a revenue-sharing agreement between China Film Group and CJ Entertainment.

The narrative structure of "Haeundae" resembles classic disaster films like the original "The Poseidon Adventure" in that it takes two-thirds of the film in order to establish the local setting and spread out a wide net of human relations.

The main players are seaside-eatery proprietor Man-sik (Sol Kyung-gu) and girlfriend Ms Kang (Ha Ji-won); his coast-guard brother and a vain, ditzy babe; and a divorced couple, one of whom is an ocean geologist (Park Joong-hoon) and the other a political adviser (Uhm Jung-hwa). Another half-dozen personalities revolve around them.

The drama mainly issues from love complications caused by relatives or class differences. Performances from the respectable cast are boisterously in line with the melodramatic situations. Nonetheless, most characters are likable enough to stir reactions in their later struggles.

With the director of the juvenile sex comedy "Sex Is Zero" and the feel-good romantic comedy "Miracle on 1st Street" at the helm, it is no surprise that he shows a penchant for similar goofy shenanigans that at times play like the main fare rather than just comic relief.

For international release, editing out some noisy family brawls and lowbrow comedy like Man-sik going nuts at a baseball game (a joke on Busan residents' passion for the game that non-Koreans wouldn't get) to tighten development of the three couples' love interests would keep audience attention from straying before the climactic tsunami.

Aside from flashbacks to a storm that caused the death of Kang's father, the buildup to the tsunami is low key. It consists only of some scientists' jargon, ominous shots of underwater tremors, scampering crabs and psycho seagulls. So when the all-devouring tidal waves finally hit the coast, the impact is larger than life.

The merging of CGI-generated waves, collapsing buildings and other dangerous objects with shots of real streets and live actors are relatively seamless. At their best, scenes have a fantasy element and gusto that renders authenticity insignificant.

For example, an oceanliner does a 180-degree flip and is perched vertically, halfway above sea level. An eye-popping catastrophe doubles as comic relief when a buffoon character inadvertently causes a mighty explosion with his lighter, bringing down a highway bridge and hurling giant freight cargoes at waterfront skyscrapers like darts. These stunts might not stand up to laws of physics, but the wackiness of the setups makes them visual stunners.

Cinematography proves worthy of the film's blockbuster aspirations by providing smashing panoramic shots of Busan's gorgeous coastline, taking in Haeundae's high-rises and beaches teeming with sunbathers and a sea of parasols. Other technical credits hit the mark except the music, which does not have enough oomph.

Opened: In South Korea, July 22
Production: CJ Entertainment, JK Film, Polygon Entertainment
Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon, Uhm Jung-hwa
Director-screenwriter: Yoon Je-kyun
Producer: Lee Ji-seung, David S. Dranitzke
Executive producers: Kim Doo-jin, Hans Uhlig
Director of photography: Kim Young-ho
Production designer: Hwang In-jun
Costume designer: Kim Jong-won
Sales: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 120 minutes