Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

The Tower (타워) – ★★★☆☆

The Tower (타워)

The Tower (타워)

Director Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) has a lot riding on disaster film The Tower (타워). His last film, sci-fi monster movie Sector 7, was reviled by critics and audiences alike and became one of the worst flops in Korean cinematic history (although it went on to secure the highest gross for a Korean film in neighbouring China). As such, questions involving his next project The Tower lingered. Had director Kim Ji-hoon managed to develop his visual aesthetics, and more complex characters and plots, into a more convincing, compelling film? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes and no.

The Tower undoubtedly boasts some of the most impressive visual effects work ever produce within a Korean film, to the extent that it’s comparable with Hollywood productions. The sets and the stunt work are genuinely enthralling, combining to produce edge-of-the-seat sequences that are incredibly engaging and convey a palpable sense of realism and danger. That said, the movie only contains an emotional core due to the performance of Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) as firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi as the vast majority of protagonists are one-dimensional stereotypes, while the actors that portray them overact to an almost ludicrous degree.

It’s Christmas Eve in Seoul, and that means only one thing for the luxurious Sky Tower buildings – an exclusive Christmas party amongst the social elite of the country. Overseeing the operations are operations manager Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경), and the object of his affections catering manager Seo Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin (손예진), who become closer as the deadline approaches. As the party grows nearer safety concerns begin to amount, yet are disregarded with plans forced through by the rich and powerful. When helicopters begin to circle the buildings creating a snow effect, the high winds force one of the choppers into a tower causing a fiery explosion and cutting off all exits for the patrons. Springing into action, firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-gi (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) leads his men, including joker Byeong-man (Kim In-kwon (김인권) and rookie Lee Seon-woo (Do Ji-han (도지한), into the building to hunt for survivors.

One of the towers is set ablaze from a heicopter crash

One of the towers is set ablaze from a helicopter crash

Taking huge reference from 1974’s The Towering Inferno as well as the 9/11 twin tower attacks, director Kim Ji-hoon’s The Tower is an exciting and exhilarating experience. Post-production on the disaster film has taken around two years to complete and it shows; the explosions, destruction, and stunts are convincing throughout as fires rage and people die in tragic and horrifying fashion. The film undoubtedly sets a new standard of quality in Korean cinema for special effects prowess, as helicopters collide, concrete fractures underfoot, and fire engulfs everything in its path. Interestingly, the cause of the disaster is akin to Titanic in that the sheer arrogance of those who dwell in Tower Sky, continually referring to their location as ‘heaven’ and close to God, are conveyed as the symbolic perpetrators of the destruction, adding something of a morality play to the devastation.

Yet the visual aesthetics are nothing without an emotional core, and in this respect The Tower somewhat succeeds. The introduction of the various protagonists working and dwelling within Tower Sky is a highly mixed affair, generally featuring stereotypes. Interesting members such as operations manager Lee Dae-ho and daughter Ha-na, and catering manager Lee Yoon-hee, are compelling but receive little character development due to unimportant tertiary characters entering the narrative that have no real impact. Also, the extreme overacting by most of the cast is an enormous irritation, notably Kim Seong-oh (김성오) as chef In-geon who is intended as comic relief but is infuriating throughout. The saving grace of The Tower comes in the form of firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who provides much needed heart and soul to the rescue attempt as he gallantly battles blazes, disintegrating floors, and corrupt officials in his single-minded quest to get the survivors to safety. Wonderfully performed by actor Seol Kyeong-gu, the captain’s mission is the driving force of the film and is genuinely enthralling to watch, with his sense of duty and responsibility simultaneously sincere and poignant.

Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

Captain Kang Yeong-ri is also joined by the humorous Byeong-man and newbie Lee Seon-woo in the search for survivors. Byeong-man provides comic relief, generally in the form of silly frivolity, which is mildly amusing in breaking up serious scenes. Lee Seon-woo however is one of the more intriguing characters, as he undergoes a transformation from reluctant rookie to employing skills learnt from Captain Kang, and his development is highly enjoyable. The three fire fighters routinely feature in very impressive stunt work throughout the film, and their successes and failures do not fail to induce an adrenaline rush.

Operations manager Lee Dae-ho also partakes in stunts, as the ‘everyman’ forced to find courage to protect his makeshift family. Such scenes are also entertaining, although they often push the suspense of disbelief to its limits, yet are engaging nonetheless. Unfortunately due to the vast number of supporting roles, Lee Dae-ho’s burgeoning relationship with Seo Yoon-hee is largely overlooked, begging the question why such talented big name stars as Kim Sang-kyeong and Son Ye-jin receive so little screen time. However, despite being underdeveloped their relationship does provide impetus to certain scenes as well as some tender moments.

Those remaining desperately fight for survival

Those remaining desperately fight for survival

Verdict:

The Tower is an extremely visually impressive disaster film, and a return to form for director Kim Ji-hoon. The special effects and stunt work are some of the best ever produced within a Korean film, and certainly on par with Hollywood films of a similar ilk, conveying a genuine sense of danger throughout. That said, the vast number of stereotypical supporting roles bog the story down resulting in an overall lack of character development and audience investment. Lucky then that Seol Kyeong-gu enters the fray as Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who single-handedly lifts the film into a compelling and emotional story, making The Tower an enjoyable entry into the genre.

★★★☆☆

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Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) – ★★★★★

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. Perhaps the cliche is best served when applied to the criminal classes, as events that would seemingly belong in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the films of Martin Scorcese are violently brought into ‘the real’, adding an incomparable shock value with the knowledge that criminal empires were actually built, and that victims genuinely suffered. More specifically, the notion of the serial killer has endeared itself amongst fans of the crime genre for the thrilling cat-and-mouse games played by the detective and murderer, but more so in attempting to piece together the depraved psychosis of the unhinged individual before another innocent succumbs to such unbalanced desires.

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억), director Bong Joon-ho’s (봉준호) incredible second film, is based on the true story of Korea’s first known serial killer who raped and murdered ten women between 1986 and 1991 – a case that is still unresolved. Memories of Murder is one of the most successful and prolific films to emerge from Korea and rightfully so, with superb direction from one of the country’s leading auteurs and an exceptional performance from lead actor Song Kang-ho (송강호).

In a small rural town surrounded by farmland, the naked and bound body of a young woman is found in an irrigation tunnel. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is called to the scene, but all traces of evidence have been destroyed by the locals. Shortly thereafter, the body of another young woman is found, raped and murdered in the same fashion. With no leads, Doo-man and his aggressive partner Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha (김뢰하) are tasked with finding the culprit, beating and torturing any suspects who visually conform to their idea of a serial killer. Their theories and methods of interrogation are rejected by intellectual Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경) who joins the search, but as the three detectives squabble and desperately cling to the loosest of hunches, and with the government too busy quelling the various uprisings throughout the country, the number of murdered young women continues to rise.

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

There is a tendency with crime-thrillers to reveal the bloodied and mutilated corpses of the victims for shock value, a tendency from which Bong Joon-ho wisely refrains and instead allows the horrifying true story to be at the forefront of the film. His vision in presenting the narrative is enthralling as he simultaneously conveys beauty and the macabre seamlessly – when Detective Park Doo-man visits the broad, expansive golden farmland in the initial establishing shot, mere moments later he is confronted with a corpse in a darkened, claustrophobic tunnel. The interplay between such oppositions, which have marked Bong Joon-ho as an auteur, continually explore the duality of the situation as light conflicts with darkness, the truth struggles against the veneer, and the lines between morality and immorality are blurred. As such, Memories of Murder contains some incredibly dark humour, such as the ramifications in fabricating evidence and the bizarre perversity that is unlocked in certain members of the populace when news of the murders spreads, adding a comedic edge that stops the film from becoming bleak but also conveys the turmoil and frustrations in attempting to catch a serial killer.

In addition to his interest in duality, Bong Joon-ho’s recurrent social exploration is rather blatantly laid bare and few are portrayed positively. The military government is too busy extinguishing public protests to provide resources; the public are too ignorant to understand they are destroying evidence; media outlets compound the situation further; and men are chauvinistic and sexist. By far the most damning indictments are reserved for the police force, as corruption and violence are commonplace. Detectives Park Doo-man and Cho Yong-koo have received very little education and their logic-defying hunches are simultaneously comedic yet disturbing, as Doo-man rehearses confessional speeches with suspects after Yong-koo has tortured them into submission. Both men humiliate the police force and make them a national embarrassment with their actions, as Bong Joon-ho initially portrays them as simpletons in need of a scapegoat. Intellectual detective Seo Tae-yoon fairs much better having received an education and training in Seoul, yet even he succumbs to the moral abyss due to the frustration with his peers and the lack of resources at his disposal. Bong Joon-ho creates a powerfully damning portrait of the era, yet the dark humour and the often unbelievably surreal events that transpire make the protagonists somehow likable as they themselves are attempt to create order within a society in chaos.

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

Song Kang-ho, as Detective Park Doo-man, is superb and utterly deserving of his Grand Bell Best Actor Award for the role. Park Doo-man is a bullying fraudster, a corrupt tyrant, yet amazingly is a compelling and charismatic protagonist. His rudimentary upbringing and attitude convey him as an underdog who routinely makes mistakes, and as such resorts to fabricating evidence regardless. Yet when his actions bring the police into disrepute, Doo-man’s evolution is incredible as he begins to emulate Detective Seo-Tae-yoon and commit to serious police work, making Memories of Murder as much about his maturation as about finding the serial killer.

Detective Cho Yong-koo is ultimately a proletariat figure with a penchant for violence, and Kim Roi-ha performs the role well. Bong Joon-ho uses the protagonist of Yong-koo to express the base dissatisfaction with the institution, and as such is more akin to a criminal as he abuses suspects, drinks alcohol, fights with locals, and more importantly sexually assaults a girl in a karaoke room – right next to his oblivious fellow officers.

Kim Sang-kyeong also conveys a highly competent performance as pretentious Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-yoon. As his modern style of police work inspires Park Doo-man, the corruption conversely leads to the devolution of Tae-yoon as his frustrations engulf his sense of reason. Yet while Doo-man’s character arc is compelling, Tae-yoon’s is less so due to his reserved and conceited portrayal.

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives down a dark path

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Verdict:

Memories of Murder is a fantastic example of a crime-thriller that does not rely on gore in producing an enthralling film about serial murders. While artistic license has undoubtedly been applied in certain areas, the fact it is based on a real-life unresolved case provides authenticity and a mixture of genuine fascination and horror that such events could transpire in recent history. As such it justifiably deserves its status as being not only one of the most prolific films to originate from Korea, but also in cementing Bong Joon-ho’s reputation as a respected auteur, making Memories of Murder one of the most noteworthy examples of the genre.

★★★★★

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