Typhoon in a Teacup 

Asian action movies don't get much less significant than this one.

If John Woo's The Killer had been made by a Korean director lacking talent and a script, you'd have Typhoon. This hasn't stopped the film's publicists from hyping it as "more than another adventure film. It has become an emotional touchstone in South Korea because the empathetic story of separation is one that many claim as their own." It's certainly true that many families were separated as a result of the division of Korea into two nations, but does that give every movie about separation a free pass? Perhaps back home, but not here: If you want some real empathy onscreen, Typhoon star Jang Dong-gun already appeared in a far superior movie on the subject called Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War.

When DreamWorks originally purchased the rights to release Typhoon in America (rights that reverted to Paramount Classics in the studios' recent merger), it was trumpeted as the most expensive film in Korea's history. But the result of its $15 million budget (paltry by Hollywood standards) is a cheap-looking action movie that sabotages itself at almost every turn. That's the short review. The longer version requires some attempt at deciphering some really confusing editing and storytelling, so bear with us. After a brief flashback involving children that will become clear only much later on, we watch an American ship get taken over by modern-day pirates, some of whom may or may not have already been on board, while others sneaked in using a boatful of refugees as a distraction, then promptly machine-gunned those refugees to death. At least, that seems to be what happens; this "director's international cut" is some twenty minutes shorter than the Korean version, and coherence looks to have greatly suffered as a result of the cuts. The leader of the pirate group, a tattooed, scar-faced, long-haired baddie aptly named Sin (Jang Dong-gun), locates the boat's secret cargo — a nuclear missile targeting system — and steals the ID card of one of the "DIA" agents on board.

Because the world simply can't have bad people causing international crises, the South Korean government calls in an outsider hero who — are you ready for it? — plays by his own rules, Lieutenant Kang Sejong (Lee Jung-jae, Il Mare), who is first glimpsed playing some extreeeeeme beach football. Kang was once a good soldier, we learn, but then there was an "incident." What that incident was, the movie never tells us. Anyway, the government sets up a meeting between Kang and a bearded pirate guy, who forces Kang to prove his loyalty by allowing cargo to enter the country without inspection. Then both of them get on a plane to Thailand, only the pirate guy goes through customs first, which makes Kang mad, so he punches out a few customs guards, takes one of their guns, and hijacks a car. Next thing you know, he's in some warehouse pointing a gun at the pirate guy's face, and the customs officers never seem to bother looking for him. Just don't ask.

Probably to help guarantee international distribution, much of the film up to this point has been in English. The major problem with this is that the actors don't seem to actually understand English, and so they try to recite their lines phonetically ("Young bus'Tard!"). You will long for subtitles anytime these guys open their mouths. Fortunately, the worst offender doesn't show up again in the second half of the story.

Sin's plan, we soon learn, is to secure some surplus Chernobyl waste from Russia, build a few dirty bombs, and hurl them into an oncoming typhoon, which will disperse radiation across the Korean peninsula. (You gotta wonder why al-Qaeda never thought of such a cunning tactic.) Despite this dastardly scheme, Sin really isn't such a bad guy: He's just hurting inside because of the time when he was a kid from the North who tried to sneak across the border with his family. Denied asylum, they were all sent back, and Mom was shot trying to escape. Sin and his sister were the only ones who made it, but then they got separated in China and haven't seen each other for twenty years. Sin is therefore righteously pissed at South Korea for denying him asylum and at North Korea, because, well, it sucked to live there. Radioactive dust for all!

Kang feels some sympathy for Sin once he learns the whole backstory, and Sin sees that Kang is an honorable man. But in this life, they can't be friends. We know this because both men say so, repeatedly.

Writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek (Friend) shows some skill with the flashbacks to Sin's childhood, but no aptitude at all for action, apart from one particular slo-mo-in-the-rain bit that's clearly a Michael Bay homage. Every time an action sequence begins, Kwak either cuts away, ends things abruptly, compresses time in confusing fashion, or forgets entirely that anything was going on and starts afresh in a new scene. Fans of onscreen violence will feel let down, and fans of drama may have trouble keeping a straight face. Rent a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie instead — the production values will be about the same, the plot less far-fetched, and the star more capable with the English language.


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