Like Hollywood, Korean cinema loves a good disaster movie, none more so than director Kim Ji Hoon, known for big budget spectacles such as “May 18” and “Sector 7”. Kim returns for more explosive extravagance with “The Tower”, basically a remake of the 1974 US classic “The Towering Inferno”, as a massive luxury residential building catches fire, leading to the expected scenes of destruction and loss of life. Variously falling out of windows or down elevator shafts are an impressive ensemble cast, including Son Ye Jin (Lover’s Concerto”), Sol Kyung Gu (“Haeundae”), Kim Sang Kyung (“Memories of Murder”), Cha In Pyo (“Hanbando”) and the ever-popular veteran star Ahn Sung Ki (“Unbowed”). The film certainly went down well with Korean audiences, and currently stands as one of the biggest hits of 2013, being the first film this year to reach the 5 million tickets milestone.
Taking place on Christmas Eve, the film follows events that befall the luxury residential skyscraper Tower Sky after the arrogant owner Jo (Cha In Pyo) insists on a lavish display of snow being sprayed by circling helicopters despite having been warned against it. One of the helicopters crashes into the side of the building, causing a huge explosion that sets off a chain of mishaps, the sprinkler system and other safety measures all failing and a raging inferno spreading. The festive celebrations quickly become a fight for survival for the trapped staff and residents, with restaurant manager Yun Hee (Son Ye Jin) and security manager Dae Ho (Kim Sang Kyung) trying to help save as many people as they can. Meanwhile, a team of brave fire-fighters arrive on the scene, led by chief Young Ki (Sol Kyung Gu), working their way through the floors in an effort to evacuate survivors before the whole building collapses.
As with his earlier works, “The Tower” again sees Kim Ji Hoon sticking to what he knows rather than trying to reinvent the genre, and the film certainly plays it close to the tried and tested disaster movie formula, pretty much to the letter. As a result, the vast majority of viewers will know exactly what to expect, the film opening with 45 minutes or so introducing the usual gang of thinly written characters (almost all of whom have at least one supposed emotional hook) and establishing that the building is NOT SAFE despite the assurances of the vaguely villainous owner. By the standards of the form, this works reasonably well, and though the script is for the most part pedestrian, it’s at least inoffensive, and does work in a few funny moments revolving around comedy Christians. While none of the characters or their relationships (doomed or otherwise) really ring true enough to make the viewer care if they live or die, the classy cast all do their best with the material, which does give it a slight boost and prevents the opening act from actually being dull.
The real question here is how the film performs once the building starts to burn, and thankfully on this score Kim does a fine job, serving up some excellent large scale set pieces and scenes of fiery destruction. Though the characters are eminently disposable, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in seeing them die in a variety of ways, and the film even manages a couple of surprise knock-offs along the way, which in part helps to make up for the overall air of predictability.
Once things get going, Kim doesn’t fall back too much on sappy melodrama, and though the tears do flow and scenes of mourning and inspirational heroism are cheaply dragged out, the film races along at a fast and reasonably thrilling pace. The special effects are superb and are definitely up to the standards of the film’s Hollywood peers, from the impressively handled helicopter crash through to countless explosions and collapses, including a particularly spectacular sequence involving the glass sky bridge between the building’s two towers. While the effects dominate, given the weakness of the script this is no bad thing, and the film looks amazing throughout, and is every inch the mega-budget blockbuster.
It should be obvious for most viewers whether they are likely to enjoy “The Tower”, as while anyone looking for originality, substance or good writing will be left unimpressed, disaster movie fans or lovers of huge explosions should find a great deal to enjoy. The film is definitely a superior genre entry, up there with tidal wave drama “Haeundae”, and though undeniably cheap and cheesy, it atones through some dazzling special effects work and grand, bombastic set pieces.
Ji-hoon Kim (director) / Sang-don Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Mina Cho … Hana
Sang-kyung Kim … Dae-ho
Sul Kyung-gu … Young-ki
Ye-jin Son … Yoon-hee