Every summer, millions of tourists flock to Busan City on the East Coast of Korea. Every summer, major film studios release a big budget disaster movie onto unsuspecting cinema audiences. Hollywood has made a habit of it, drowning us in volcanic lava, invading aliens and soul-destroying earthquakes. So it’s a big warm welcome from the Busan City tourist board, who hope you enjoy your stay at Haeundae Beach, a popular holiday resort for anyone seeking sun, fun and romance. The Korean Film Board on the other hand, well they just hope you enjoy the mayhem, as director Je-gyun Yun delivers one of the most successful box office hits in Korean movie history.
You’ll be hard pushed to recognise any of the familiar warning signs in the first act, because Je-gyun Yun introduces his large cast of characters in slapstick fashion. It’s clearly an area he feels most comfortable in. His previous movies include Sex Is Zero and My Boss My Hero, and he certainly succeeds in adopting a fresh approach. There are precious few glimpses of impending doom in the opening hour. Little evidence of the millions spent on special effects. What we have here is shouty, slapstick farce and larger than life characters.
It’s the typical ensemble of characters. Je-gyun Yun isn’t that daring. So we have the scientist who saw it coming, the non-believing government types, lots of hapless civilians, and a sprinkling of hopeless romantics. They are all present and correct. All that’s missing is the wave itself. The comedy actually works well up to a point, more on that in a moment, and the first hour is arguably the most entertaining part of the movie. Korean comedy is like peanut butter. Childlike and tantalising, it should have you rooting for the characters come crunch time.
Sadly, and rather fittingly, it’s when the wave hits that the movie falls apart. The effects are often convincing, but there’s very little here that we haven’t seen before, and Je-gyun Yun isn’t half as comfortable with the action as he is with the comedy. You can't take any of the dramatic tension seriously; the characters had spent so much time goofing around that I half expected Leslie Nielsen to pop up in a cameo. I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be laughing at a scene where a man tries desperately to evade falling bridge debris, but there I was, laughing my ass off. The melodrama, much like the wave itself, is relentless in the final act, and I struggled to care about any of it. The movie caves in to conformity.
Tidal wave is by no means a complete disaster, but it’s nowhere near as successful as the Korean box office would have you believe. It's an ill-conceived mix of broad humour, clichéd melodrama and eye popping visual tomfoolery. The first hour is enjoyable, as is the final third, but the two acts don’t belong in the same movie. A low budget comedy drama that centres on characters involved in a natural disaster could have worked well (see the first half for details), or even a big budget Hollywood style movie that wreaks havoc on the special effects supervisors (see the second half of the movie), but combining the two in one film created comedy where there should have been drama, and laughter where there should have been tears.
Tidal Wave is a disaster that should have been avoided. There are better movies than this out there, which also includes most of Roland Emmerich’s catastrophic output of the past twelve years. You have been warned. AW