Guns blazing, in a Korean sort of wayArtistic Korean films have been increasingly successful overseas. Park Chan-wook and Im Kwon-taek are well known in film circles in the West, and their films also perform reasonably well at home. Korean comedies and horror films also do very well at the domestic box office. But there’s one place Korean filmmakers have as yet not conquered. From “Thunderball” to “Terminator,” big-budget action is still Hollywood’s home turf. High-octane summer action is what cinematic America does best, and with scant exceptions (“Swiri”) this is still the case.
So a film like “Typhoon,” a straightforward spy flick, has an uphill battle to get itself taken seriously. But this is a surprising and rare effort, with no expense spared on such diversions as a high-speed car chase through the streets of Busan, a few jungle shootouts, a thrilling seabound climax and more. Unfortunately, it’s also got the plot holes and utterly unbelievable villanous schemes of the typical Western spy flick ― but if you can suspend disbelief for a Bond film, you’ll make it through “Typhoon” just fine. A particularly Korean twist has helped “Typhoon” make waves in the United States, with positive reviews in major newspapers, including The New York Times and Chicago Tribune.
As the film opens, a dastardly North Korean and his gang of Vietnamese thugs has stolen a set of targeting components for nuclear weapons. Though told to leave it to the Americans, the South Korean intelligence agency dispatches a former Navy SEAL, Kang Se-jong (Lee Jeong-jae), to Vietnam to recover the devices and unmask the man behind the heist.
This turns out to be Sin, a.k.a. Choi Myeong-sin (Jang Dong-gun), whose dreams of a fiery apocalypse derive from being denied asylum and orphaned at the North Korean border while Chinese soldiers attempted to repatriate him with his parents and sister. This sister is still alive, and when Kang tries to use her as a bargaining chip he learns the responsibility his country bears for their suffering. But any hope of a happy ending for Sin dissolves when the full scope of his plot becomes clear.
For all its wonderful explosions, “Typhoon” also handles its drama fairly well ― the flashbacks to the hopeful lives of Sin and his sister at the Austrian Embassy, and the subsequent dashing of those hopes, are artfully filmed and effectively acted despite the children’s young ages.
Some foreigners may cringe at the film’s pro-unification “blood over borders” sentiments, but compared to other recent abominations, “Typhoon” is downright sophisticated. Kang acknowledges that he understands Sin’s suffering, and he often disagrees with his countrymen’s methods ― but there is never any question of his allegiance, and he never wavers in trying to bring Sin to justice. It won’t please everyone, but it’s a relatively moderate point of view.
It’s not a seminal work of cinema. But in “Typhoon,” friends out to find a good popcorn-crunching rental for a hot, muggy Seoul summer night have a Korean alternative to “Mission: Impossible III.” And that’s enough.
by Ben Applegate