In light of my impending trip to South Korea for the 15th Pusan International Film Festival, I thought I'd watch the beach front location of the event being violently demolished by a massive tsunami. For a giggle. To this purpose, Tidal Wave (2009) delivered the goods. The other 90% of the film however ... not so good.
In the classic disaster flick formula, we're introduced to a variety of characters with whom we are expected to bond through long intervals of character development. This serves two purposes: 1) It sets up a payoff when the shit hits the fan -- we're emotionally invested in the fates of our new friends; 2) It creates padding (let's face it, you can't have 120 minutes of giant waves crushing stuff). So you've got the brave young coast guard guy, the plucky single mom, the lovable loser guy, the brainy-yet-hot chick, the scientist who knows the tidal wave is coming (but no one will listen), the adorable child, etc., etc. These individuals all display an emotional range that goes from goofy to sappy and back again. And again. And again. Yep, that's pretty much all you get here, either goofy or sappy. The laughs are played broad, usually involving slapstick and/or some measure of extreme drunkenness. And despite how tough or smart a character might be, underneath they're all histrionically sentimental. Behold, as the waves finally hit, the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth! The film's special effects are matched only by the emotional spectacle the actors make of themselves.
There's also an issue with the ending, which it's impossible for me to spoil unless I go into detail (which I won't). The thing is, in a film like this, where you've already kept the audience waiting for the vast majority of the picture, when the grand finale comes, the one thing it shouldn't do is drag. Oh how it drags. It drags like a drag queen taking a drag on the back of a dead dragon. It's a drag.
That's not to say there aren't some thrilling moments, like right when the wave hits. Obviously these scenes will resonate more with the tens of thousands of Koreans who flock to the lovely Haeundae Beach area each summer (the Korean title of the film is Haeundae). Me, I've been looking at pictures of the place in tour books and online in anticipation of my visit, so it was a little spooky seeing it wiped out by a cyclopean wall of water. Those without fond memories or a vested interest in Haeundae Beach may not be so engaged. However, if you're a disaster film fan, you'll probably want to see Tidal Wave, if only for the FX and the novelty of a modern Korean take on an old genre. If so, good night and good luck.