Judge Adam Arseneau blows.
Revenge is a force of nature.
Handsome and stylish, Typhoon stands out as the largest South Korean cinematic undertaking in terms of sheer dollars. With a budget in excess of $15 million (chump change on these shores), it sets out to pay homage to the finest in mindless American summer blockbusters, with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer the proud "fathers." The end result is a satisfying action thriller, but one that feels eerily familiar to North American audiences.
Facts of the Case
As a young boy, Myung-Sin (Dong-Kun Jang, 2005's The Promise) and his family try to escape the oppression and hardship of their native North Korea and flee to the South. Unfortunately, due to diplomatic complications, their amnesty request is compromised and the North Koreans reclaim the defectors in China. His whole family destroyed, Myung-Sin swears revenge upon Korea, both North and South, for destroying his entire world.
Flash forward a few years, and Sin is a notorious smuggler and pirate, preying on international sea shipments in Southern Asia. But when his crew attacks and steals a clandestine American shipment of nuclear warhead parts, the South Korean government is forced to intervene out of fear of starting an international incident. Loyal soldier Gang Se-jong (Korean television star Jung-Jae Lee) is dispatched to track down and apprehend the pirate. However, to his growing alarm, the more he investigates Sin, the more he realizes the attack on the American ship was no accidental discovery—it appears that Sin has grandiose plans to take revenge upon the Korean Peninsula…
Typhoon is painfully American in its stylization and action conventions, not merely borrowing they playbook from the archetypal summer Hollywood blockbuster, but copying it verbatim. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With a microscopic budget (at least by Hollywood standards), a surprisingly effective and impressive action film has been created, and it is darn amusing to see how close this South Korean drama mimics our own cinematic style. The end result is a film that feels frighteningly accessible, mostly because we've seen it before—many, many times before.
Like many recent South Korean blockbusters, the dichotomous and fractured relationship between North and South Korea takes center stage, both thematically and in its plot points. In Typhoon, a jaded North Korean refugee denied amnesty in the South grows up to be a gun-toting pirate and decides to live up to his childhood fantasy of blowing up the entire Korean Peninsula with a big ol' nuclear bomb. The man set to stop him is essentially a South Korean version of G.I. Joe, a loyal military man who never questions his orders. Both men find an odd sense of camaraderie with the other, despite being firmly on opposite sides of the issue vis-a-vis blowing up Korea. In another life, the two could have been good friends. Alas, in this kind of film, it is unavoidable that a prolonged knife fight on a narrow catwalk underneath a large pit of exploding fire is in their future; action moves can be cruel mistresses of fate. Still, much is made of this oddly symbiotic and fractured relationship, with both men representing their respective countries, for better or worse, and asking themselves what cruel twists of fate put two likeminded countrymen on opposite sides of the border.
The film moves with a comfortable and balanced pace, spacing its action sequences out with healthy doses of character development and lip-flapping. The action sequences themselves are short and sweet, with only a few fractured gunfights and explosions placed strategically in the plot, much in the style of the recent Bourne franchise, complete with an international cast and exotic shooting locations in China, Korea, Thailand, and Russia. Most of the character development comes in the form of enigmatic glimpses into the background of Myung-Sin doled out at a measured pace, forcing audiences to come to terms with the man at the same rate as the hero. In doing so, Myung-Sin becomes an oddly sympathetic villain; not quite one you root for, but one you can at least feel bad for—the dude is from circumstance. Rising star Dong-Kun Jang proves again and again what a marvelous actor he can be, bringing a manic joy to this role, his buggy eyes popping out all over the place.
Director Kyung-Taek Kwak (Friend) has clearly studied at the Michael Bay School of Action Film Cinematography, and it shows in every glorified frame. The camera rarely sits stationary, always panning and tilting and gliding about to the tune of a hyped-up, vaguely patriotic symphonic soundtrack, each sequence turned into masterful compositions of steely action film glory. The real skill comes in the set up of some decidedly non-Western long takes and compositions of frame, which is one of the few times when Typhoon genuinely distinguishes itself away from its homogeneous genre. The film has a good solid pace about it, not too mindless in its action sequences, and a story that clearly had more attention given to it than the average blockbuster. It's not merely a delivery system to set up the next huge action sequence, with the emphasis on cold espionage over blowing stuff up. All in all, surprisingly satisfying way to spend an afternoon!
The 5.1 surround presentation is a worthy performer, with booming bass response and a loud orchestral score, accentuating bullets and explosions with ease throughout all the channels. A veritable hodge-podge of broken English, Thai, Russian, and Korean is spoken aloud by various people at different points in the film; while the English is always passable, the English subtitles only decipher non-English dialogue, so thick accents occasionally confuse. In addition, the center channel is a bit weak, so some adjustment might be required to balance the volume levels—raising the volume to hear the dialogue will explode your speakers when the next explosion hits.
Extras are acceptable for a single-disc release, all in the form of featurettes. A making-of documentary comprises the bulk of the material, giving your standard behind-the-scenes footage edited together with interview footage from cast and crew discussing the film. In addition, we get four smaller featurettes, divided by category: visual effects, production design, location, and, er, tattoo. It makes sense once you see the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem with having Hollywood-style glossy action films a la Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer fed back to us after making the global rounds is that they inevitably return in exactly the same form. The formula has been so perfected, reduced and boiled down to its barest components of music, explosions, and melodramatic plot points that there is precious little room for any variation.
Typhoon is a good film judged on its own merits, but a very familiar film, lacking any standout qualities to elevate it above its North American contemporary lookalikes. Except for everyone speaking Korean, this could easily have spawned out of Hollywood.
A solid, if not entirely original, action affair, Typhoon satisfies due to its sleek production values, its strong direction, and all-too familiar (but proven) content. Strong acting performances seal the deal. For foreign film buffs, Typhoon may be the least foreign film not in English you ever see. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend entirely on your cinematic taste. For the average viewer, it makes Typhoon both easily accessible and enjoyable.
Not guilty—a moderate blind buy for action fans and definitely worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• "The Making of Typhoon" Documentary
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