A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Kyung-taek Kwak, 2007, Korea, 105 mins, Korean with subtitles
Cast: Dong-gun Chang, Jung-jae Lee, Mi-yeon Lee
An ambitious thriller attempting to examine Korea’s role in the three-way tussle between China, Russia and the USA, and resentment felt between North and South, Typhoon sinks in a morass of melodrama, listless action sequences and maudlin sentimentality. International megastar Chang plays Sin, a vengeful pirate who plunders an American vessel and murders its crew. A deal with Russian mobsters lands Sin thirty tons of biohazard waste, with which he plans to bombard South Korea. Hotshot Navy SEAL Se-Jong (Lee) locates Sin’s long-lost sister, Myung-ju (Lee), a drug-addled prostitute, who reveals that as child immigrants, she and Sin were betrayed by South Korean politicians, handed back into communist hands, their family slaughtered. Unnerved by feelings of kinship towards Sin, Se-Jong races to stop the pirate’s chemical laden freighter, Typhoon, before American torpedoes launch a nuclear catastrophe.
Since the international success of Je-gyu Kang’s Shiri (1999), Korean action movies have dominated the landscape of Asian film in much the way Japanese cinema did in the Sixties, and Hong Kong in the Nineties. British cultural ministers can learn a lot from the way South Korea’s government develops, supports and promotes their industry, yet too many filmmakers draw their commercial and aesthetic inspiration from two unlikely sources: Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Kang modelled Shiri on The Rock (1996) and Typhoon follows the Bruckheimer/Bay model of gung-ho patriotism, grandstanding performances (Chang pouts and preens like a bishonen manga character) and melodramatic excess.
A great shame since Kwak’s story is obviously heartfelt - inspired by his father’s hardships as an immigrant. Typhoon’s most affecting scenes concern the immigrant siblings, struggling to survive as youngsters, wasting away as adults: Myung-ju from drug addiction, Sin eaten up by hate. Yet Kwak frequently verbalises drama he ought to visualise, with speeches hammering characters’ moral dilemmas with little subtlety. His use of narration, in heavily accented English, by a Thai supporting character unfortunately renders Sin’s back-story incomprehensible.
That Kwak chose to tackle such ambitious themes with an action movie, the most expensive Korean film ever, is exciting. But Typhoon’s flat storytelling, shaky-cam shootouts, and hero Se-jong’s cardboard stoicism are too Hollywood, Bruckheimer/Bay trademarks lacking the idiosyncratic flair of Hong Kong New Wavers like John Woo or Tsui Hark, whose ability to fuse political commentary with pulp poetry would make a better model for Korea’s young, commercially minded filmmakers to follow.