Billing itself as “the first super disaster movie of China,” multihyphenate Feng Xiaoning’s natural-weather extravaganza “Super Typhoon” registers high on ambition but considerably lower in execution. Launched offshore in the Tokyo Film Festival’s eclectic competish, and subsequently in China on Oct. 24, the critically disparaged but locally groundbreaking film outperformed actioner “Wushu,” garnering an impressive 10 million-plus yuan ($1.5 million) in its first weekend. Other Sino territories, accustomed to more polished standards, are less likely to be blown over. Asian-themed fests may respond to its camp value.
A typhoon of ever-increasing velocity nicknamed “Blue Whale” approaches China’s southern coast and heads for a densely populated city. Recalling benchmark U.S. disaster films like “Earthquake” (1974), the script establishes several strands featuring characters whose lives are affected by the titular event, including a local pickpocket, a man who’s come ashore from his nearby island to buy supplies for his pregnant wife, a government official whose daughter is getting married and a (German-accented) American cyclone-chaser straight out of “Twister.”
Heading the pack in Harrison Ford presidential style is hands-on mayor Xu (Wu Gang), who proves wise, resourceful, unflappable and compassionate throughout. Much is made of Xu’s dependence on advice from his associates, so he recruits meteorologist Cheng (Song Xiaoying), his former schoolteacher, to provide scientific support.
Cheng’s fascination with cataclysmic weather patterns dates back to her father dying (more shades of “Twister”) during the last major typhoon to hit the area, back in 1956. Black-and-white flashbacks to that disaster provide an appetizing, if deceptive, taste of things to come, with a convincing portrayal of the rural population trying to fortify a demolished sea wall. Flashbacks also provide relief from the movie’s heavily expository first hour.
When Blue Whale finally hits the mainland, deluge and destruction are repped by a combination of archival footage, easily identifiable miniatures and some minor CGI. In contrast to the brief, enticing ’56-set disaster sequences, repeated depictions of the impact of the contempo typhoon (with the same five or six model cars washed around) only emphasize the pic’s low-rent quality — underlined by the late appearance of a rubbery-looking aquatic beast.
In line with Asian values, group effort is valued above individual action, though the mayor’s heroism and fairness are granted concessionary status. Wu brings much-needed gravitas to the role but the other thesps struggle to establish credible characters amid the tide of ham-fisted dialogue.
Pic’s frequently repeated, rousing musical theme is its biggest drawback, undermining the audience’s ability to take the story seriously. Unsophisticated f/x also raise chuckles.