“Typhoon”, the latest effort from “Friend” director Kwak Gyeong Taek, was very much a flagship release for the domestic South Korean market, having the highest budget in the nation’s history and having been shot on various locations, including Pusan, Thailand, and Russia with a partly international cast. Unfortunately, despite being a deeply personal and uniquely Korean film, based upon and shot through with the tension resulting from the conflict between the North and South, it flopped at the box office.
The plot follows Sin (Jang Dong Gun, who also played the lead role in “Friend”), a North Korean who as a child attempted to defect to the South with his family but was betrayed, resulting in the deaths of his parents. Plotting genocidal revenge, Sin takes up with a group of Thai pirates, and steals a U.S. ship carrying nuclear devices which have been secretly manufactured in Taiwan . He is pursued by Kang Se Jong (Lee Jeong Jae, also in the 2000 romantic hit “Il Mare”), a naval officer who attempts to bring Sin to justice, though who gradually comes to understand, and even sympathise with his foe.
Although from the above synopsis “Typhoon” may sound like a simplistic thriller, it is actually a complex and densely plotted affair, which gradually reveals its secrets after a bewildering first act. The film does tend to jump around a great deal, with a large supporting cast of minor characters and with the action taking place in a number of different countries, though once things settle down, this works well, giving the proceedings an almost epic feel. Although it does fall back upon what is a fairly unconvincing plot device, which seems to have been included mainly as a set up for the climatic scenes, the film is for the most part intelligent and gripping.
But it is not too hard to see why “Typhoon” failed to set the box office alight, in that it is a fairly dark and depressing film, and far from the Hollywood style blockbuster many may have expected. Although it is similar to previous Korean hits such as “Sil Mi Do” and “Taegukgi” in that it focuses on the conflict between North and South Korea as represented by the two protagonists, it treats violence and bloodshed as an inescapable, disastrous outcome, and thus acts more as a guilt-soaked tragedy or cautionary tale. The film has a bleak, nihilistic view of governments of all countries, particularly those of South Korea and the U.S. (who are, as usual, portrayed as hell-bent on simply blowing everything up to solve problems), with politicians being held responsible for the suffering of the Korean people.
Director Taek spends most of the film exploring the character of supposed villain Sin, with numerous flashbacks depicting his ordeals and the sad fate of his family. The problem comes with the fact that his is the only fully fleshed out role in the cast, and so the viewer naturally comes to sympathise with him, especially since the nominal hero Kang is a blank faced and indistinguishable robot who mainly just follows orders and spouts the odd line of patriotic dialogue. This does leave the viewer in a fairly uncomfortable position, since, despite his undeniable humanity, Sin is quite obviously a homicidal psychotic with a frankly daft nuclear scheme.
As such the film is devoid of the usual heroics, and Taek wisely eschews explosive action and shoot outs, opting instead for slow but intense espionage scenes and sudden bursts of violence. This does make it rather slow moving at times, and it does feel somewhat overstretched. Though never dull or boring, “Typhoon” is likely to disappoint those expecting a different type of film. In a way, the fact that its high budget has been highlighted is something of a misnomer, as most of the money was probably spent on shooting in different countries, rather than on pyrotechnics or special effects.
However, this actually works in the film’s favour, as it is questionable whether the subject matter would have lent itself to brain dead bravado or exploitative entertainment. As it stands, “Typhoon” is a moving, genuine film which attempts to make a very personal case for the suffering caused by the North-South Korean divide, and more generally, by governments and politicians the world over.
Kyung-Taek Kwak (director) / Kyung-Taek Kwak (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-Kun Jang …. SIn
Jung-Jae Lee …. Gang Se-jong
Mi-yeon Lee …. Choi Myeong-ju
David McInnis …. Somchai