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June 1, 2006

The International Intrigue hiatus is officially over. I don’t know how you went about watching any foreign films at all in the past couple of weeks. Don’t worry, I’ve returned to guide you through the murky waters of languages not quite our own.

But in the interest of easing back in, I’ve just got one single solitary review for you (regulars will know that oftentimes I have many). So I dedicate this still not-all-that-short column to the “I love your column but it takes me all week to read it” crowd.


Director Kwak Kyung-Taek found enormous success in Korea in 2001 with his film FRIEND which is still one of the country’s highest grossing films. And he’s been trying to regain that success ever since. He directed two more films CHAMPION and MUTT BOY, fairly well regarded efforts but neither of which struck the chord with people that FRIEND did. But TYPHOON is the most high profile film he’s ever done and is a clear attempt at mainstream success.

The film centers on Sin (Jang Dong-gun), who as a child attempted to defect from North Korea with his family. But due to bureaucracy they were denied. Ultimately, his whole family was killed except for himself and his sister Choi Myeong Ju (Lee Mi-Yeon). But they were eventually separated. He ended up as some sort of indentured child worker in Thailand and she ended up as a prostitute in Russia.

Subsequently, the film takes place not only in Korea but also in Thailand and Russia, making it a complex mix of languages (that you probably won’t even notice unless you can tell them apart by hearing them). And there’s even some heavily accented English that’ll make you wish they kept the subtitles going. But the exotic scenery is at least of interest and gives the film a worldliness and visual panache.

But cut to the current day and Sin is a pretty hot tattooed pirate. But a pirate who is full of anger and bitterness and bent on destruction of the two Koreas that made him so miserable. Thanks to the US breaking some Nuclear treaties, now he has his chance.

Trying to catch up with Sin’s truly complicated plan is Kang Se-jong (Lee Jung-jae), a South Korean agent. Kang is always one step behind until he finds Sin’s sister first and then tables are turned. The cat and mouse game eventually leads up to the climactic attempted realization of Sin’s grand plan (which relies heavily on the chance arrival of a typhoon) and a massive showdown on the high seas.

The film stars Jang Dong-gun, an actor that Kwak pretty much made into a celebrity with FRIEND, and who had gone on to even more success in the huge Korean blockbuster TAEGUKGI and the very high profile Chinese production THE PROMISE. But the poor guy, who was already forced to speak Mandarin in THE PROMISE and Japanese in 2009: LOST MEMORIES, is once again subjected to languages he doesn’t know and valiantly attempts tackle Thai and Russian (and if I recall correctly, a bit of English). When will they stop doing this to this guy?

The film also stars Lee Jung-jae (IL MARE). He brings real empathy to a pretty one dimensional role. And Lee’s down note, duty bound agent is a good counterpoint to Jang’s more outrageous, angry pirate (full with Jang doing his bulging eyes thing, which made a memorable debut in TAEGUKGI). In fact, both the actors are rather good in the film.

This kind of cast and director in a big North versus South action picture with the biggest budget to date in Korea is about as sure a bet as one can get there. It was bound to make money and it did. Too bad they made the most American of mistakes and neglected to put all this effort into a worthy screenplay.

As you probably gathered from my summary, the story is just outright confusing. Even though we tediously follow Sin through every step of his plan, it never really begins to make any logical sense. He gets the US nuclear something or other but that’s not what he’s using, he’s trading it for something or other. And why are there two typhoons? The film works best in the honestly emotional scenes between Sin, his sister and the Korean agent. Also, the most affecting scene of the film is easily the flashback to Sin’s childhood. But the actual thrills and intrigue tend to bog the story down.

On the plus side, the film is well made. Like a lot of top notch Korean films, the cinematography was good and the sound was good for a foreign film (Korean films often have some of the best sound you’ll find outside of Hollywood). Even the effects are fine. And I really liked the score even though some might find it heavy handed. But in the end it comes down to the story. And it’s just not there.

At least the themes are there, but they’re nothing new. It is ballsy making the South Koreans the bad guys in the way they do. It’s easy to empathize with Sin as a victim of diplomacy. He never would have tried to destroy the country if the South Koreans didn’t treat him so horribly by denying his family entry. It’s the South Koreans who made him who he is, not the North. But in a way he’s a martyr to a greater cause (is one family too much a price to pay for the possibility of peace?). But TAEGUKGI and SILMIDO tread some of the same ground, inferring that the North wasn’t entirely to blame and that the South shares some blame as well.

The US aspect of the film is interesting and something different. As it is now, the movie seems to indicate that if the US never got involved (by shipping illegal nuclear something or other) then there would be no catalyst for North Korean revenge. But from a Western point of view, the film would have been more potent if the Americans had caused the original offense instead of the South Koreans. Just this week, documents were uncovered alleging that Americans did shoot refugees (or at least were told to). But these kinds of big budget South Korean films are really about the North-South divide, not America’s place in it.

The relative mediocrity of this film makes me wonder if the golden age of really fantastic action films that delve deep into the question of the North-South Korean divide have run their course. Is there anything left to say? Any angle left to explore?

TYPHOON is being released tomorrow (June 2nd) by Paramount Classics as the “Director’s International Cut”. I’ve heard some negative things about the original Korean cut of the movie but I don’t actually know what the differences are. But from my estimation, this one doesn’t seem to be all that better. Yet, in the end, it’s a pretty enjoyable romp and not a complete waste of time. That’s the backhanded compliment I have for you TYPHOON…


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