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An ill wind...
A UK region 2 DVD review of TYPHOON / TAEPUNG by Gort
 

In 1983 Beijing, a family of North Koreans seek asylum at the Austrian embassy, but South Korean government official Park Wan-sik recommends refusal. Twenty years later a container ship carrying nuclear missile guidance systems is ambushed and its crew is slaughtered by an armed group of modern-day pirates. What's the connection? Aha... At the South Korean National Intelligence Service, ex-Navy SEAL Lt. Kang Se-jong is hauled away from his sports practice for special assignment. He's the ideal man for this job, we are told, because he speaks fluent English and once sank a North Korean ship in what is categorised vaguely as "an incident." The man he's been charged with hunting out, the leader of this band of pirates, is named Choi Myung-sin, or Sin as he's known. He's every bit as deadly as his nickname suggests, but at least there aren't seven of him.

Se-jong jaunts off to Thailand and approaches arms dealer Peter in an effort to locate the pirate, but has to do a deal to let a cargo of immigrants through customs before he is allowed to accompany him to Shanghai. Peter's attempt to dump Se-jong at the airport seriously underestimates this soldier's brutal determination, and in no time at all the hapless arms dealer is alone with Se-jong and being shot in the leg for answers. He gives them. Trouble is, Sin is already on the streets of Busan, transported there in the very container lorry that Se-jong let through. He has a score to settle with the aforementioned Park Wan-sik, whom he follows into a bathroom and kills with a big knife. Sin, it turns out, was the young son of the family that was refused asylum due to Park's interference, and the consequences of that decision have left him a bitter man. He's developed a serious grudge, not just against Park and his ilk, but all of Korea, North and South. Which is why he's buying enough black market nuclear waste to wipe out the entire country.

Conservative action filmmakers must miss the cold war, when all you had to do to create a bad guy was give him a frown, a thick Russian accent and have him call everyone comrade, and when your heroes could fly the flag of domestic values as they slaughtered the ideologically incorrect. The subsequent shift in world politics doesn't seem to have caused director Kwak Kyung-taek any sleepless nights, at least not if Typhoon [Taepung] is anything to go by. His hero may be cheerless, but he's good looking, patriotic and right thinking. And his loves his mother. He also misses his departed father, an ex-Lieutenant Colonel to whose grave he visits to share thoughts like "Father, you always said that a soldier should maintain his honour, even when his country is being put to the test." And he's from South Korea, while the evil Sin is from the North. And who is it that's supplying the nuclear waste to these terrorists and has had Sin's long lost and terminally ill sister Myung-jyu working as an army prostitute all these years? Why it's those damned Ruskies.

Before I go too far down this road I should point out that the politics of Typhoon are neither as clear cut nor one sided as this lampooning might suggest. In Typhoon's book just about every nation is guilty of something, South Korea of colluding to refuse entry to the refugees, the North of killing most of them, the Russians of dodgy nuclear dealing, Pakistan of trading in the same, and the Chinese of getting into bed with the Russians. The Americans, meanwhile, have been covertly pointing missiles at Korean turf and want to torpedo Sin's nuclear boat to cover up all evidence of the affair. The only pure hearts belong to the ordinary South Koreans and their fighting men, upholders of ideals to which we should all aspire. Oh sorry, my cynicism just keeps popping up.

Despite the parody potential of having a bad guy named Sin (which can't help but recall The Evil Team from Shaolin Soccer), the character himself proves to be a lot more sympathetic than you might expect. OK, wiping out an entire nation may be overreacting a little, but as the sometimes extensive and involving flashbacks illustrate, he has damned good reason to be pissed off at the world. The problem with this is that he later proves a lot more interesting and likeable than the film's supposed hero Se-jong, a humourless Dudley Do-Right with all the charm and personality of a varnished fence post. This imbalance puts a peculiar slant on the climactic military assault led by Se-jong on Sin's boat, as a platoon of expensively equipped automatons stomp through the vessel slaughtering everyone in sight. I watched the scene with the same sense of moral confusion that I would if asked to cheer a heavily armed Nazi storm trooper raid on a French resistance cell. In what is presumably supposed to be a triumphant moment, a soldier armed with an automatic weapon, night vision goggles and body armour shoots the slow-mo shit out of a pirate waving only a sword, and I found myself hoping against hope that is gun would jam and blow up in his self-righteous face.

Clearly hoping to take on Hollywood at its own game, director Kwak keeps the pace brisk, the emotions loud and the subtlety locked in the closet. Action scenes are staged with noisy but sometimes exciting aplomb, while a sense of scale is created by some medium-large set-pieces and a narrative that hops from country to country like a bionic flea on an accelerated package tour. There's more than a whiff of Bond in the preposterous scheming of the villain and even a few bars of the otherwise generic score, but not even a hint of the wit or dark humour that characterised even the more lightweight 007 outings. Similarly, the suggestion that Se-jung and Sin have some kind of underlying kinship may nod at late Hong Kong era John Woo, but it feels here like an ill-developed bolt-on rather than in any way integral to the narrative. Working out their differences in the name of brotherly love is just never on the cards for this pair.

A busy, energetically staged but largely unexceptional actioner that ultimately slips towards silliness (I can't be the only one who laughed out loud at Se-jong's proclamation that Sin was only planning to wipe out Korea to get attention), Typhoon's nationalistic fervour is unlikely to work that well for an international audience, although its loud bangs and fast chases should still register. I salute Kwak's attempt to kick against the genre's usual one-dimensional characterisation by humanising the traditionally cardboard super-villain, but by failing to do likewise with the notional good guy he inadvertently directs audience sympathies towards the very people we're supposed to want to see stopped at any cost.

A footnote. Although the version submitted to the BBFC was passed uncut both for cinema and video distribution, the extra features do reveal a missing sequence whose absence is felt in the film as it stands. In one of the flashback scenes, the young Myung-jyu raids a large quantity of pork buns from a farm, but when she returns to her brother she is unhappy, dishevelled and her bounty has clearly been reduced. In the first documentary on disc 2 we see the filming of part of the missing footage, where Myung-jyu is caught stealing by the farmer, who goes to hit her, then instead drags her protesting into a darkened room, presumably to rape her. This absent sequence helps clarify detail in the scene as it now stands and adds to the poignancy of Sin's back story, already film's strongest element. Whether this was deleted by Kwak before the film's Korean release or removed for international prints is uncertain.

sound and vision

In common with the big budgeted Hollywood actioners it apes, Typhoon looks damned good on DVD, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer displaying impressive sharpness, excellent contrast and black levels and strong colour reproduction, within the judgement limitations of the creative colour tinting popular in modern action thrillers.

Two soundtracks are available, 5.1 surround and DTS surround, both the original Korean (with bits of English and Russian and even Thai). Comparing the two is actually like comparing a Dolby 2.0 track with a 5.1 on some other discs, so dramatic is the difference in volume, spread, bass and all around wallop. When the action gets going you'll really know about it on the DTS track and so will your neighbours – automatic gunfire in particular rains at you from every direction, while the rumbling of the US submarine should get the ornaments on the move.

extra features

Unless you count the trailer for 9th Company on disc 1 (I don't), the extra features are all on disc 2.

The Making of 'Typhoon' (47:10)
Actually titled Eye of the Storm: The Making of Typhoon, this is an engaging and educational look behind the scenes that includes interviews with director Kwak Kyung-teak and members of the crew and cast (one of whom, Min Je-hwan, cheerfully reveals that this is the seventeenth movie he's died in, and the second this year!). This is where you'll find the filming of that missing sequence detailed above, but it's the punishment the actors and crew are put through for the final, ship-in-a-typhoon sequence that is the most eye-widening.

Star Power (20:38)
Split evenly between interviews with lead actors Jang Don-gun and Lee jeong-jae, who discuss their initial involvement with the film, their characters and their approach to individual scenes, and cut with more on-set footage. Both cover the difficulties of the climactic fight, which was done with knives on a moving gimbal as water was being poured on to them.

Production Diaries (36:41)
A detailed look at the work of the production design and effects team, which includes more coverage of the gimbal set and the constructed miniatures of the boat, submarine and helicopters and collection of weapons made by the props team that you'd easily mistake for the real thing. This is a particularly worthwhile extra that really shows the work that goes on behind the scenes on such a film, something they individually hope will be appreciated.

summary

Action movie fans sometimes make few demands of story, in which case the flashback scenes here, which for my money are the best bit of the film, will probably seem like baggage between the blasts, but if you're watching for pace and incident alone then Typhoon has a fair amount to recommend it. For the rest of us those issues of uneven character development, sentimentality and head-held-high nationalism make the film an interesting but largely unfulfilling miss, despite some well done scenes. No problems with the disc, though – Premiere Asia have delivered on picture and sound and those three documentaries are well worth the look even if the film leaves you unsatisfied.

Typhoon
Taepung

South Korea 2005
104 mins
director
Kwak Kyung-taek
starring
Jang Dong-gun
Lee Jeong-jae
Lee Mi-youn
Kim Gap-soo
David Lee McInnis
Claude Athaseri

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Korean
subtitles
English
extras
Making-of documentary
Cast interviews
Behind-the-scenes documentary
distributor
Contender – Premier Asia
release date
20 August 2007
review posted
16 August 2007

See all of Gort's reviews