South Korea’s most popular beach resort gets trashed by a tsunami — but the characters triumph over the CGI — in “Haeundae,” the first full-on disaster movie from the peninsula. This thoroughly entertaining, tightly cut slice of widescreen hokum goes the usual route of focusing on a small, dysfunctional group before the badass brine hits, but with much more leavening humor than most Western efforts. Its July 22 release swamped local theaters, taking a beefy 2 million admissions (some $15 million) in its first five days; offshore, it’ll be more of a specialty curio, especially after Sony/Columbia’s “2012” overwhelms the planet in November.
The past couple of years have seen London underwater (“Flood”), China ravaged (“Super Typhoon”) and Tokyo’s subway waterlogged (“252”). Overall, “Haeundae” is the best of the bunch, and its $10.5 million tab, huge by local standards, is all up on the screen.
Haeundae is part of the southern coastal sprawl that makes up Busan, the country’s second biggest city and home to its best-known film fest. The pre-credits sequence, set in December 2004, references a (real-life) milder event, as a deep-sea trawler is caught in a heavy storm-cum-tsunami. One man dies, trapped under equipment.
On board that night was Choi Man-shik (Seol Gyeong-gu) who, in August 2009, still blames himself for the accident. Choi hasn’t been to sea since, drowning his sorrows in drink while trying to care for his young son (Cheon Bo-geun). Meanwhile, Choi’s longtime g.f., Gang Yeon-heui (Ha Ji-weon), who happens to be the dead man’s daughter, runs a small seaside fish eatery while waiting patiently for Choi to propose.
Script by helmer Yun Je-gyun (a Busan native) wastes no time drawing connections among a small cluster of characters. They include Choi’s handsome younger brother, lifeguard Hyeong-shik (Lee Min-gi), who, after rescuing an oversexed college student from Seoul (Gang Ye-weon), spends the rest of the movie fending off her rich jock admirer.
Also in the frame are Choi’s uncle (Song Jae-ho), a wealthy property developer; Kim Hwi (Park Jung-hun), a marine geologist involved in the earlier tsunami; and Kim’s careerist ex-wife, Lee Yu-jin (Eom Jeong-hwa), in town for a business event along with the young daughter Kim never knew he had.
The opening hour of most disaster movies generally reps a tiresome waiting game before the effects kick in. But in brief strokes, “Haeundae” manages to sketch a likable collection of drunks, losers and people just getting by in life that’s entertaining on its own terms. (Choi’s drunken escapade at a baseball game is a case in point.) In one magical sequence, all the characters enjoy a brief moment of true romance and happiness during a fireworks display that cements the pic’s emotional framework.
The second hour, as Park vainly tries to persuade the Disaster Prevention Agency that a real mutha is on its way following an undersea earthquake, sees all the characters trapped in individual situations when the tsunami rolls in.
Visual effects, supervised by Hans Uhlig (“The Day After Tomorrow”) and masterminded by Marin County’s Polygon Entertainment, are OK, especially for a movie in which they’re the cherry on the cake rather than the whole bakery. Special effects, utilizing some original, half-comic ideas, are generally more impressive.
A dramatic lead with an impressive resume, Seol (“Public Enemy,” “Oasis”) makes attractively light work of his loser/drunk, and is nicely balanced by the charismatic Ha — a regular in Yun’s movies (“Sex Is Zero,” “Miracle on 1st Street”) — as his smiley-eyed, practical other half. Other perfs are more rote.
Editing by Shin Min-gyeong, some 10 minutes tighter than originally announced, wastes little time. Lee Byeong-woo’s big score is overdone in the final reels.