David Lee McInnis
Seon Heo Wook
Rumoured to have had the largest budget in the history of Korean cinema, Kwak Kyung-taek’s Typhoon has all the right ingredients to make up a dumb-assed Michael Bay-style action blockbuster – or an Eastern spin on James Bond.
Murderous pirates in the East China Sea. A covert American nuclear program. Illegal weapons traders from Thailand. Ex-KGB Russian mafiosi. Global terrorism. Lethal biohazard waste smuggled from Chernobyl. Two former refugees from North Korea, the sister now a heroin-addicted sex-slave (Lee Mi-yeon), the brother a would-be global terrorist hell-bent on exacting a world-shaking revenge (Cheung Dong-gun). A determined but conflicted South Korean special ops soldier (Lee Jung-jae) hot on their tracks. Raids, car chases, shoot-outs, knife fights – and an explosive climax taking place at the point where two massive typhoons are converging off the Korean Peninsula.
And yet what on paper just sounds like adrenaline-pumped nonsense turns out on screen to be a sensitive and surprisingly sombre study of the personal tragedies afflicting the divided Koreas. The performances are subdued, the colours muted, even the cataclysmic finale seems merely the tempestuous stage for more intimate human drama. It is almost as though, having surrounded his film with all the sound and fury of an elemental storm, Kwak has decided to stick to its much calmer eye. Here, the clichs of the action flick are just a flashy prop designed to give the film’s explosive political commentary the “recognition” (one of the last words heard in the film) that it properly deserves.
Indeed, Typhoon is a plea for recognition: recognition of the awful plight suffered by refugees, Korean or otherwise; recognition of the cynical conduct shown by both sides of the Korean conflict, selling out their own people; recognition that the two Koreas are often unwilling, if not entirely unwitting, pawns in a much larger geopolitical Cold War (where the North is not alone in defying international nuclear non-proliferation treaties); and, most controversial of, all at a time when the “War on Terror” is being waged against the “Axis of Evil”, Typhoon is a recognition that ‘terrorists’ are not born in a vacuum, but created by wider injustices in a hypocritical world.
Cheung Dong-gun’s Sin may be dangerous and quite possibly an insane mass-murderer, but a series of flashbacks to his harrowing childhood experiences casts his conduct in an unexpectedly sympathetic light, so that even his pursuer can imagine Sin, under different circumstances, as a good friend. And of course, before we see Sin and his fellow pirates, near the film’s beginning, unceremoniously slaughter every last crew-member of an American vessel off the Taiwanese coast, we have just witnessed a US agent on that same vessel mercilessly machine-gunning a group of helpless boat people – and the vessel itself is covertly transporting illegally manufactured satellite guidance kits for nuclear weapons. In this carefully elaborated context, it is difficult to say who is the greater criminal, who is madder, or indeed who is really holding the world to ransom. And although of course much of Kwak’s story is a fiction, there is no denying that for over half a century, the Korean peninsula has been the location of a protracted proxy war between East and West, with the two Koreas and their civilian populations sent hurtling towards each other like colossal typhoons.
This film about a divided nation is also likely to divide audiences. Adolescent male viewers sucked into seeing the film by the promise of non-stop high-octane antics are likely to leave disappointed, but the film will certainly appeal to those who like their violence unglamorised, their spectacle restrained and their political allegory treated with deadly, deadly seriousness. And even if the characterisation seems at times a bit flat, and Kim Hyeong-seok’s soundtrack tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings, the unremitting pace and engaging performances are enough to ensure that many will be swept away by this particular Typhoon.