Inviting one to marvel at state-of-the-art architecture and then revel in seeing it spectacularly combust, South Korean disaster movie “The Tower” is an impeccable, no-expense-spared f/x exercise that crucially lacks an emotional dimension. Injecting contempo elements into his Hollywood blueprint, 1974’s “The Towering Inferno,” helmer Kim Ji-hoon overdoses on visual fireworks in a way that smothers any human drama mustered by the sprawling cast, whose marquee names are treated as mere icing on the cake. Fueled by strong Asian sales and a recent Stateside bow, the film has enjoyed sizzling local B.O., grossing $34 million since its Christmas release.
It’s Christmas Eve in downtown Seoul. Real-estate magnet Chairman Jo (Cha In-pyo) throws a ritzy party at his landmark creation, Tower Sky, which consists of twin towers of 108 floors. Helicopters are hired to spray artificial snow around the building, but a mighty gust sends one chopper flying into the 63rd floor, setting off a fire where the party’s in full swing. The film takes a satirical jab at Korea’s oft-reported political/financial cronyism by depicting how the rescue mission by dedicated Youido firefighters is delayed by the self-interested decisions of developers and government leaders.
“The Tower” boasts the strengths as well as the shortcomings of Kim’s previous works, critical and commercial disaster “Sector 7” and popular political epic “May 18.” The helmer manages the complex integration of high-tech effects amid huge crowd scenes with characteristic aplomb, and the pic’s basic two-part structure helps the action develop at a fairly brisk pace.
The level of technical sophistication that has made Korea a leader in the East Asian f/x industry is on full display here, and the explosions and conflagrations are staged with such inventiveness that they achieve a grandeur of their own, dwarfing the ongoing human distress. To the film’s credit, it’s not all bang and boom; splintering glass has rarely looked more deadly than in a scene in which people have to cross a bridge linking the towers.
On the downside, Kim’s habit of cramming characters into a single film without granting them individuality is more pronounced than ever. More than a dozen personalities are introduced in the first 32 minutes, and although they’re united by a common goal to fix their love lives, this never becomes the narrative’s emotional backbone. Even when characters cross paths, their focus on the physical crisis at hand never takes on deeper undertones. The central relationships involving maintenance head Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyung, “Hahaha,” “May 18”), catering manager Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin, “White Night”) and Lee’s daughter Ha-na (Jo Min-ah), squander their initial chemistry as the characters spend much of the film looking for each other.
Going through the usual stock heroics, the firemen lack the kind of charismatic, offbeat personalities and backstories that animate films like Johnnie To’s “Lifeline” and would make auds care about their survival. Early scenes focus on Capt. Kang Young-ki (Sul Kyung-gu, “Haeundae”) and his need to address his marriage problems, but said problems are never dramatized, and Sul’s performance remains diligent but rote. Making his third appearance in Kim’s filmography as a Youido station chief, Ahn Sung-ki, with his natural air of nobility, is the only thesp to exert any presence.
Tech credits are tops. Kim Young-ho’s versatile, swooping lensing and Park Il-hyun’s model-house production design ensure the predominantly interior-set scenes never lose their visual luster.