By Thomas Doherty
Last Saturday night, I had the interesting experience of seeing director-writer Yun Je-gyun's ``Haeundae" in the exact place where his smash hit should be seen: in downtown Busan. In a theater packed with Korean teenagers and undergraduates eager to see the surf go way up at their local beachfront property, I must have been the only person over the age of 30 in the entire house.
Haeundae is a Korean foray into the popular genre that Hollywood has always dominated ― the apocalyptic disaster movie. Heretofore, only major American studios possessed the requisite special effects magic and multimillion dollar budgets to conjure big screen earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and asteroids plunging to earth. In the digital age, however, any geek who can download animation software and an AVID editing system can aspire to become a 21st century Cecil B. DeMille.
Yun certainly delivers the goods. Indeed, the film overflows, as it were, with a swirl of different motion picture styles ― slapstick comedy, overwrought melodrama, and eye-popping spectacle. To an American sensibility, the sudden lurch from genre to genre makes for an uneven, off-kilter narrative. No matter how absurd the disaster premise (i.e., rejuvenated dinosaurs, killer cyborgs, extraterrestrial hunters), the inculcation of tension and terror requires a sustained mood and a modicum of realism. Three Stooges-style yuks and lethal visitations don't mix well.
The plot is the usual stew of disastrous cliches: the prophetic scientist whose warnings of impending doom go unheeded by his idiot superiors; the callous capitalist whose interest in profit blinds him to the danger on the horizon; and the obligatory inclusion of cute kids in jeopardy. Mostly, the shenanigans and schmaltz mark the time until the wrath of Mother Nature is unleashed on the luckless Busanites, whereupon the action finally kicks in to high gear. An observant student of Alfred Hitchcock's ``The Birds" (1963) and Stephen Spielberg's ``Jaws" (1975), director Yun positively wallows in the orchestration of tidal destruction. He also knows how to spring a jolting cinematic bushwhack.
While waiting for the waves to come crashing in, two cross-cultural currents caught my eye. One of the main characters is a raving, obnoxious, and violent drunk, a lout who slurs, stumbles, and brawls in front of his small son, who is often shown crying pathetically. The inebriated antics are played for belly laughs and were received as such by the Korean audience.
The upbeat portrait of acute alcoholism may or may not be related to the ubiquitous ``product placement" that wallpapers the film. C1 Soju, a provincial brand name, is everywhere. Its logo appears on aprons, advertisements, and on bottle upon bottle of the stuff, with the label prominently positioned on screen. Whatever the company paid for the feature-length plug, it got its money's worth. In "Haeundae," no one drinks Jinro.
On the other hand, Haeundae rejects the smug anti-Americanism characteristic present in so much of Korea's cinema, especially the science fiction genre. In Bong Joon-ho's ``The Host" (2006), for example, the Korean-eating creature incubating in the Han River is the responsibility of a mad U.S. army scientist who dumps toxic waste in the Seoul water system. By contrast, a prologue in Haeundae features the U.S. Coast Guard heroically rescuing a crew of Korean fisherman threatened by the tsunami of 2005, a selfless creed echoed by the Korean Coast Guard at the close of the film.
However, it is as a cultural bellwether that Haeundae is most intriguing. In the American tradition, Hollywood disaster scenarios ― whether invasions from outer space, which served as thinly veiled projections for Soviet attacks in the 1950s, or the eco-catastrophes and plagues that descended in the 1990s ― express the fears and anxieties of the moment. From this vantage, it is not too much of a stretch to read Haeundae as a projection of South Koreans' own fears of destruction ― not from the sea to the east, but from the madman in the north.
Produced during a period of heightened tension on the peninsula over nukes and missiles, and coming to market when the visibly deteriorating dictator seems unlikely to outlive the summer blockbuster season, Haeundae unfolds as a coded expression of the darkest premonitions south of the 38th parallel. Unlike most disaster movies, which are set in an indeterminate future, Haeundae is firmly set in Korea's here and now, the summer 2009. Moreover, the beach party in Busan is the perfect site for a metaphorical meltdown. Once a fisherman's wharf, a place to scarf eels and sip mokkolli, Haeundae has been transformed into the South Korean Riviera, a jam-packed pleasure zone where Koreans soak up the sun and enjoy the fruits of their labors among high raise luxury apartments and nightclub hotspots. La dolce vita, Korea style.
Yet, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, a tsunami wipes out the peace, prosperity, and cushy life style. Abetted by state of the art computer imagery, wave upon wave of devastation reduces the skyscrapers, bridges, and fun-plexes to rubble as girls in bikinis and guys in business suits are drowned, squashed, and electrocuted. Busan's proud emblem, the Gwangan Grand Bridge, is lanced by a huge cargo ship loaded with goods for export, the symbol of the Korean economic miracle. Containers from the ship come crashing down, squashing motorists and pedestrians, before the inevitable fireball blows the ship and bridge to smithereens. I don't think I am giving anything away by revealing that the noblest and most sympathetic characters die tragically. After all, this is a Korean, not a Hollywood, disaster film.
The crowd in Busan lapped it up. Fortunately, it's only a movie ― right?
The writer is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and an adjunct professor at the International Summer Campus at Korea University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.