Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/01/06 18:08:13

"An idiosyncratic blend of melodrama, politics, and action thrills."
3 stars (Just Average)

Marketed as the South Korean answer to "Mission Impossible," "Typhoon" ["Taepung"], an action/adventure film centered on the decades long conflict between North Korea and South Korea is anything but. While "Typhoon" contains several action set pieces that could have been filmed and edited in the United States, it doesn't have enough of them for the average action genre fan. Instead, writer/director Kyung-Taek Kwak tries, but doesn't quite succeed, at giving "Typhoon" an emotional core, using genre conventions to superficially explore the personal, often tragic, effects of the political and military stalemate on the Korean Peninsula.

After a brief prologue set inside the Austrian Embassy in Beijing, Typhoon jumps ahead twenty years as modern-day pirates ruthlessly attack an American merchant ship in Korean waters. Led by the bitter, merciless Sin (Dong-Kun Jang), the pirates easily take over the ship, killing every one in the process. Sin, however, isn't just after the ship's commercial cargo. Apparently, Sin's been tipped that the American ship is transporting a missile guidance system, which, once in his hands, Sin hopes to either bargain away for cash or use in a revenge plot involving 30 tons of nuclear waste.

The South Koreans decide to send in one of their best agents, Gang Se-jong (Jung-Jae Lee), to track down Sin, first in Thailand, where Sin has a secret base, then Russia, coming full circle to Korean waters, where Sin's plans come to a head. To gain some leverage, Se-jong tracks down Sin's older sister, Choi Myeong-ju (Mi-yeon Lee), before Sin can find her. Se-jong hopes to dissuade Sin from his plan, but Se-jong's superiors back in South Korea might have other ideas. The adversaries meet and discover some kinship and, as they readily admit, if circumstances were different, the possibility of friendship. Cue retreat, more flashbacks to Sin and Myeong-ju's brief time together after they lost their family, and a climax aboard a ship that Sin christens "Typhoon." Not coincidentally, the assault occurs during a double typhoon.

Thanks to several flashbacks, we learn that Sin was in the Austrian Embassy twenty years ago along with his parents, older sister, and other relatives (twenty in total). Sin's family sought asylum in South Korea, hoping for safe passage from the Austrian Embassy through China and, finally, to South Korea. Betrayed by Chinese and South Korean officials, Sin's family was massacred, with the exception of his older sister, who escapes with him (they're later separated). Kwak obviously wants us to feel some sympathy for Sin, brutalized as a child, in turn forced to use brutality to survive. Unfortunately, that works only superficially, given that we see Sin brutally murder a dozen men in the post-prologue scene. Flashbacks plus tear-stained scenes with his older sister aren't enough to change audience sympathies enough that we care whether he lives or dies in the final scenes.

It's a truism of the action genre that action films are only as good as their villains. Typhoon has a good one in Sin, a motivated, sympathetic villain, but what it doesn't have is an equally credible hero. Se-jong could have stepped out of a generic Hollywood blockbuster. He's kin to the type of characters Tom Cruise has played successfully for more than twenty years. He's the (second) best of the best, an athletic (he's introduced shirtless on beach, frolicking with his navy buddies), tough, loyal, and dedicated to the "cause," but he's motivated by something abstract, intangible, patriotism, while Sin is motivated by something personal, revenge for the death of his family. Se-jong also shows his inner Jack Bauer when he shoots a captured crime boss several times to extract information, making it twice as hard to root for him to stop Sin.

Relatively unknown stateside, Kwak was able to obtain sufficient financing to provide Typhoon with the resources necessary to mount effects-heavy action scenes. Unfortunately, Kwak seems to have taken his directing cues from the intensified continuity school of filmmaking exemplified by Michael Bay. Every action scene is edited within a micro-fraction of unintelligibility. Kwak cuts almost every other second, cuts during camera moves, and keeps the camera up close and personal. It makes for several migraine-inducing moments, including a car chase scene that's almost impossible to follow. Kwak saves a more sedate style for the flashback scenes, but still manages to throw in a graceful crane shot or two before jumping back to the present tense.

Ultimately, flashy visuals can only do so much, and here it can't make up for Typhoon's narrative flaws, including a semi-coherent storyline cobbled together from lesser James Bond films, a sentimental segue into family drama that stops whatever momentum Typhoon had up to that point, and a cipher as the presumptive hero. Early on, Kwak also makes the mistake of having several characters speak in English, presumably in the hopes of acquiring international distribution for Typhoon (which he obviously did), but the line readings here are no better than what we saw recently in Memoirs of a Geisha. Kwak lays off on the English dialogue a half hour into the film, letting the character's actions and subtitles do the rest.

As for "Typhoon," it's hard to imagine an audience, an audience, going for its mix of Bay-style action scenes, sentimental drama, shallow polemics of the "why can't we along" school, and, well frankly, not much else. Wait, there is something worth mentioning: 'Typhoon" is far more entertaining than another recent Asian import, Chen Kaige's "The Promise," which also featured Dong-Kun Jang as a central character. Jang wasn't enough to make "The Promise" watchable, but he comes close here. Someone, anyone, please give Jang better material to work with next time.

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