Home > Film > Tidal Wave or Haeundae (2009)

Tidal Wave or Haeundae (2009)

There’s a long tradition in storytelling for groups of people to be overwhelmed by some kind of natural calamity. It can be a volcanic eruption, extreme flooding or plagues, and that’s before we get out of the Bible with the loss of Sodom and Gomorrah to fire and brimstone, Noah’s survival, and Egypt’s trials. Listeners have always liked to hear about how individuals or cities come close to perishing. It may be the audience wants to feel superior. It knows it will never face a comparable kind of divine retribution. Or it may just enjoy an inspirational tale of how survivors rebuilt and grew stronger from facing adversity. Whatever the reason, we’ve carried this trope with us through the centuries in oral traditions, the written forms and now the visual media. Everyone, it seems, enjoys a good disaster (so long as it’s not actually happening to them, of course).

Kyung-gu Sol and Ji-won Ha see disaster approaching


It’s not surprising ASEAN, Japan and South Korea should be interested in the tsunami. Over the centuries, different parts of the region have been devastated by these waves. As part of the Pacific Rim with its active volcanos, these countries are at risk should there be underwater seismic movements. One of the most recent examples was the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in 2004 that moved across the Indian Ocean and caused the deaths of about a quarter of a million people.


Tidal Wave or Haeundae (2009) takes its setting in Haeundae-gu which has what South Koreans believe is their best beach. It attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year.

Joong-Hoon Park passes on another warning


In a way, this is a film about guilt. Choi Man-shik (Kyung-gu Sol) is fisherman who feels responsible for an accident at sea which caused the death of the captain. Jae-ho Song Man-shik’s uncle and the owner of the vessel may also share in the blame for sending the boat out in storm conditions. Naturally, the fisherman loves the dead captain’s daughter, Gang Yeon-heui (Ji-won Ha) but cannot bring himself to confess his love. Kim Hui (Joong-Hoon Park) is a scientist who specialises in tsunamis. He regrets his failure as a husband and father. Dong-chun (In-kwon Kim), a worthless son, is oblivious to the need to show any kind of respect to a loving mother. Based on class differences, a group of young tourists show active contempt for Man-shik’s younger brother, Hyoung-sik (Min-gi Lee) who rescues Hee-mee (Ye-won Kang) one of their group. And, because of the nature of the film, the city’s its administrators feel guilt because they failed to cancel the big, politically-sensitive meeting and had no proper evacuation plan to put into effect. The fact the city only had ten minutes actual warning of the arrival of the tsunami would not save them (assuming they survived, of course).

City girl (Ye-won Kang) and life-saver (Min-gi Lee)


Yes, this film is melodrama with the inevitable game played by the writer/director, Je-gyun Yun, as to who will live and die. But it’s actually firmly rooted in the small community that lives on the waterfront and jetties around the fishing port. The tourists may come and go for the beach, but the hard core of working people risk their lives to keep fish on the menu while the air-sea rescue teams keep their helicopters and boats ready for emergencies. The central hook is the wish of Man-shik’s rich uncle to redevelop the section of waterfront where Gang Yeon-heui struggles to make a living. This will mean displacing all the locals who do not enjoy the patronage of the developer. There are also suggestions of corruption in the local planning decisions to allow the ambitious plan to be green-lighted. The subplot with the spoiled rich girl rescued by Hyoung-sik is quite interesting. She’s bullying him into a relationship which she knows is never going to survive the status test her parents will apply. The chances of a marriage are very small inherently making the entire episode a test of her power over a naive local. The plot play-off ramps up the guilt element ferociously.

Dong-chun (In-kwon Kim) makes a run for it pursued by his mother


The arrival of the tsunami is, frankly, primitive CGI with models of beach-front tower blocks almost falling over — they need to be vertical again later. The suspension of the container vessel on the bridge is ludicrous but the fall of the containers plays to the theme of retribution. Dong-chun is literally put through an emotional mincer as every possible unfolding disaster just fails to terminate his life. In the end, he wins an award for bravery in rescuing people. It’s not clear whether this is ironic or he’s actually reformed. Other sequences are also illogical like how a woman may almost drown in a lift somewhere around the tenth floor while people on the street outside are floating in about seven or eight feet of water. But, in a sense, the reality factor need not be strong. All we need is for there to be the right emotional pay-offs as key characters live or die.


While Tidal Wave or Haeundae is not the greatest disaster film ever made, it does make a real effort to capture a part of the economic and social dilemmas currently affecting South Korea’s development. The real-world city of Haeundae-gu is exposed to possible danger from its proximity to major undersea fault lines. That it continues to exploit the natural resource in its magnificent beach makes perfect economic sense. That this will mean continuous redevelopment of the city, sacrificing the old communities to service the needs of the tourists, is a price the current local government thinks worth paying. Yet there must always come a time when cities like Haeundae-gu take a moment to reflect. It can displace the fishing fleet and redeploy workers into service industries. But this sacrifices more than jobs. It breaks up communities and destroys their traditions passed down over generations. People like Dong-chun may be worthless but they are known and to some extent supported in the community. Hee-mee and her friends from Seoul are equally worthless, and that’s the real irony. The lives of local people are being destroyed to pander to the wealthy barbarians from the capital. I’m not surprised this broke box office records in South Korea. This was the country’s first home-made disaster film. It’s a brave attempt at a new genre. Perhaps others will follows but, if that happens, let’s hope the producers keep the themes local and resist the siren calls of a Hollywood style. The message of this film is “local is best”.


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