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Movie Review: The Tower

Disaster films have been around since at least the 1970s and, although Korea doesn’t have a huge history of disaster films, it seems like ever since the Korean film industry has modernized and budgets have increased, Korea has been happy to take on the genre as well. This year we are being treated to The Flu, which is a Korean take on the disease outbreak disaster film, last seen done by Steven Soderbergh in 2011 with Contagion. Last year on Christmas, CJ Entertainment treated Korean audiences to The Tower, a film about a highrise in peril, inspired by 1974’s The Towering Inferno.

Of course, no discussion of Korean disaster films should take place without mentioned Haeundae (also known as the creatively re-titled Tidal Wave in North America). A film that has been billed as Korea’s first major disaster film, Haeundae was met with mixed critical and popular reviews, but great performance at the box office, no doubt bolstered by its star-laden cast and large scale visual effects. And perhaps encouraged by the performance of Haeundae, it was inevitable that we would see more Korean disaster films.

The Tower plays it especially safe, taking its idea from its highly successful American predecessor and similarly casting an array of high profile Korean stars, including one Sol Kyung-gu, who also helped lead Haeundae to massive box office success. And the film predictably did pretty well at the box office, breaking five million admissions.

It accomplishes this with a enormous bevy of special effects and action in addition to the cast, as well as a big dose of melodrama. Unfortunately, this melodrama is played over a bunch of thin characterizations and several moments really draw out the film, making the film a chore to finish. Furthermore, the whole film is utterly predictable, especially when it comes to who will make it and who won’t, so the film loses most of its tension pretty quickly.

But the film sets itself up pretty well. The titular tower is a luxury residential tower in Yeouido called Tower Sky, part of a pair joined by a sky bridge and houses the fabulously wealthy and powerful. Its CEO (Cha In-pyo) is planning a fantastic Christmas party for its residents and despite the dangerous updraft that is reported, he calls in some favors with some influential friends to get his flight of helicopters to the party.

The pressure is also felt by widower-father-building manager Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyung), who, when not busy dealing with faulty sprinkler systems and building maintenance problems, is clumsily trying to court the attractive event manager Seo Yoon-hee (Sohn Ye-jin). Meanwhile, across town, the fire department’s Sergeant Oh Byung-man (Kim In-kwon) welcomes its newest recruit, Lee Seon-woo (Do Ji-han), as the department’s workaholic hero, Captain Kang Young-ki (Sol Kyung-gu), finally takes a day off to spent with his oft-neglected wife.

And then, of course, we have the expected disaster and while the firefighters struggle to rescue Tower Sky’s residents and put out the blaze, a small group of survivors, including Young-hee and Dae-ho’s daughter, Ha-na (Jo Min-ah) are trapped on the restaurant floor with all exits engulfed in flames. Things unsurprisingly get worse.

The first half of the film is arguably its best. It spends just enough time to introduce its variety of characters and to set up the problem. The film even sets up a contrast between the haves and the have nots and actually manages to be quite exciting in the early moments of the destruction. This is largely because there is clearly a lot of money pumped into the special effects and it shows.

Fire crawls across ceilings, pillars of flame erupt from the side of the building, people leap out of the building on fire, floors cave in, glass shatters and it all looks quite convincing. There are enough explosions and fiery plumes to make Michael Bay weep tears of joy. And if the film only let up just briefly enough to breathe, The Tower might have become relatively enjoyably mindless fun, like Speed.

But this is a Korean film. And as a Korean film, it must have melodrama. So we get more than our fair share of slow moments where we spent time with the characters reacting. At first, it’s a decent reprieve from the relentless action, but once we reach the final act of the film and we not have a limited amount of time before ceilings cave in or structural supports give way, this constant slowdown causes the film to drag.

What’s worse, there are moments in the film where we clearly see that there are about three minutes before something really bad happens and the characters know it. Yet we are treated to sad puppy dog eye scenes as characters mourn a possible death for what seems like well more than four minutes. By the end of the movie when one character makes a long expected heroic sacrifice that drags on and on with fellow survivors being sad and the martyr spending quite a bit of time moping, I’m pretty sure the Tower Sky would have already collapsed. Everyone’s going to die unless you do what you were planning to do and yet we have to watch you be all sad for more time than you actually have left?

That is when I start throwing (soft) objects at my screen. This really wouldn’t have been that much of a problem if we actually spent some time getting to know and care about these characters, but they are written so one-note that I just ended up rolling my eyes when the film slows everything down to say, “Oh, look, this character that we took the time to give a single shallow characteristic is going to die. Care! Care!” And I found myself rolling my eyes so much at times I’m sure it looked like I was having a seizure. I simply can’t love cardboard cutouts.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments. I mean, Kim Sang-kyung and Sohn Ye-jin have some cute moments as a potential couple, the comedic beats from Kim In-kwon and other minor characters are fun. The actors clearly didn’t have much to work with, but most of them manage a decent moment or two. Also, the special effects and even some of the action sequences are pretty good.

But, in the end, if you’re going to try to inject your film with actual honest-to-goodness drama, you really need to have actual honest-to-goodness characters and not the cardboard action film archetypes here. If you’re going to have flat characters, just blow them up when dramatically appropriate and move onto the next threat without giving the audience too much a second to breathe. Otherwise it’s really easy to start seeing just how empty the story really is.

In the end, this attempt to stuff a drama into a decent action-disaster film makes the experience increasingly tedious as it goes on. You simply don’t have enough character in The Tower’s characters for the drama to payoff. And it’s worse because you can pretty much guess who lives and who dies well before the destruction starts happening. Sure, there might be some surprises, but by the time they happen, the film has pretty much lost most of the goodwill earned by its highly technically proficient scenes of destruction.

If you are a fan of disaster films, there is probably enough disaster in The Tower to be enjoyable. In fact, the action moments, when not bogged down by needless drama, are relatively engaging enough that I think most audiences will actually be able to make it through the film on them alone. But The Tower‘s insistence on slow, unnecessary, and unearned dramatic moments feels like it’s trying so very hard to wring at least a tear out of your eye. And for me, finishing the film became as much of a chore as wringing every last drop of water from my clothes after a laundry gone wrong. Approach with caution. 6/10.

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Thanks for the review again, refresh_daemon :)

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Thanks!
i can't believe they used cardboard cutouts, never thought that would happen in Korean movies.

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He meant flat characters not actual cardboard cutouts

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Actual cardboard cutouts would burn better.

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LOL!

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thanks for the review :)

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it's true that one should not place drama everywhere.....sometimes it's good to keep things simple and light.....

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holy cow, i see kim sung oh everywhere. dude has an enviable filmography.

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I beg to dissagree. I certainly got the your point, refresh_daemon. But for me it has moments that overshadow the loops.
As to me, it really made me care. But hey, to each his own right? :)

You're really doing a good work here in DBLand. Keep it up!

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Thanks for the review. Didn't watch this movie yet, need to be in the good mood to do so.

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I just spotted Kim Seung-oh on the pics. Will watch it now no matter what. :D

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Wasn't intending to watch this but then i caught sight of sohn ye jin...no choice now but to watch :3

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I watched this in theatres, and absolutely loved it. I was dreading the part where the cleaning ajumma died (but it never came, thank goddness)!

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I spent the whole time freaking out about her! And I definitely didn't see some of the deaths coming, like that deacon (RIP).

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I loved it when I saw it, too. It definitely got a few tears from me at the end.

Maybe I just haven't seen enough disaster films for it to be predictable...

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Thanks for review! I'll check this out soon-- on my to watch list.

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Good movie, good casts, but easily forgotten, in my pov.

Love Do Ji Han's welcome ceremony on his 1st day at work. My fave part of the movie~! *wink*
LOL at KSK awkward-clumsy moments with SYJ.
Got teary eyes in the end, for the fallen hero, the Captain.

Thanks for the review, dear.. ^^

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I actually thoroughly enjoyed it immensely and even cried in some scenes - guess I'm just a sucker, even with carboard cutout characters. It gave me a sense of what might've been going on when the Twin Towers collapsed. I was blown away (intended pun) by the special effects too.

For those who have seen both Haeundae and Tower, which did you like more?

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Thanks for reviewing this! I've been wanting to see Tower since I'm a big disaster movie fan. :)

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Saw the original Towering Inferno in the movie theater. It as a big deal then and was a megahit.They used the then BofA Headquarters in S.F. as their inspiration because it had 63 stories.I had to do some classes in that building, and the movie made me paranoid afterwards. Sometimes, the winds were rough and made the building sway. Now there are buildings over 100 stories high which may still have the same problems about fire. Is there a real "Tower" building in Seoul or is is all CG?

Don't know why we need to do another tower disaster movie. The CG fire and mayhem were very realistic, but there wasn't much on character development. Although I liked the actors, the movie dragged because it was very predictable.

We've had our real disaster and fire in the U.S.
I remembered the horrific day of September 11, 2000 when the terrorists attacked the One World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Also I happened to be in N.Y. City on September 11, 2010 on its 10th anniversary memorial remembrance for the 3,000 persons who lost their lives.They blocked off the streets, and there were crowds trying to get to see Ground Zero. EXTREMELY High security alert and a very somber day.Our lives were never the same after that day.

Fire and evacuation is a major problem for high rise buildings so hopefully some of them have some resolution in place.

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Sorry.. confused wrong years. 2001 and 2011.

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Sigh....Son Ye Jin doesn't seem to be having a lot of luck lately

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Thank you refresh_daemon . Appreciate the review although I'm not into disaster movies.

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Because I saw your review, I decided to watch the movie and I'm thankful to you. It worths it although I do agree with you about some points. The fact there are a lot of actors I recognized was a delightful surprise. Last time was with Neighboors :)

*"What’s worse, there are moments in the film where we clearly see that there are about three minutes before something really bad happens and the characters know it. Yet we are treated to sad puppy dog eye scenes as characters mourn a possible death for what seems like well more than four minutes. "
OH MY GOD, I know. When they were crying, weeping and whatever, I was like "isn't there only 3 minutes left ? WHAT ARE YOU F*CKING DOING !!!!!!"
I hate when these scenes happen. I get that we need to have some sad moments but gosh', don't put it when there is a tower collapsing or a bomb awaiting to be exploded.

*I got disappointed when they show dramatic moments like "OH MY GOD THIS CHARACTER IS GOING TO DIE" and finally, they don't. OF COURSE THEY DON'T. Maybe because I'm used to 24's style of having lot of unpredictable deaths, but I become pretty fed up of the overly dramatic supposed death. They tricked me twice with the daughter and the lover .... --'

Oh and I love characterization but come on, rich are bad and poor are good ? Isn't it a little bit overboard ? It is realistic in a sense that richs are going to be rescued first but I don't know ... The General Manager dying on the bridge reminds me of the guy in Poseidon which loved to drink and was arrogant and COINCIDENCE, he died falling from some kind of bridge too. O.O

But anyway, I enjoyed the movie but the first part was definetely better :D

(Out of subject but I can't believe that Kim Sang Ryung married his wife 2 days after meeting her. It is random to talk about it but it is still shocking that their marriage is still strong. I guess it really was love at first sight/soulmate.)

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I love your well written review. I agree with the over-the-top melodrama. I find that if a movie director uses excessive melodrama in one movie, he keeps doing it and doing it like its the director's signature style. Very frustrating but easily avoidable if you know which team was involved in directing movie. (In past movies)

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My sister loves disaster films and I was eager to watch the cast (almost all the lead actors were performance proof in my eyes) alas, I completely agree with the review that this was special effects and not much else. The performances were laughable but as I read the review, I realised that this probably is due to the lack of character.

This is only good if you are into disaster films and like watching special effects (which were done very well).

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Watched this in theater (because OMG Kmovie in my country!!!) but forgettable especially the second half. Agree with you on few dramatic scenes that *I* not really care but overall okay-ish movie.

The thing I remembered while walking out is I probably spent too much time on Kdrama/movie since I recognized like 80% of the actors ~

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i relly liked this movie.i give it a 9 out of 10.

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I'm American and I'm watching this movie right now.... and WOW this is good. I'm over sitting on the edge my sofa nervous. This movie is refreshing and without using cuss words to express anger. They need to make more of these types of films....

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I just finished watching this movie, and I really enjoyed it because I was not expecting it to be anything else than what it was. It was a treat to see so many actors in it that I like. I would also say that I am glad that I did not watch it in the movie theater because this is defnitely one of those movies that you have to talk at (okay scream at). And okay, I did know that as soon as he ordered that cake that he was probably going to die, I still was wondering and I cried at the end. I am also glad that the cleaning lady didn't die. If they had killed her, I would have been really pissed. I also loved how there was humor interwoven in the script. We could use more of that in disaster movies.

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Can a helicopter crashing into a building truly set off an inferno portrayed in this movie? Seems a bit unrealistic. Any comments? Loved the movie just looking at realism level of this scenario for fun :-)

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If I didn't interpret wrongly, I believe more than 1 chopper crashed into the building. And aviation fuel is known to burn very well. So perhaps it's possible.

Of course, no movie can perfectly capture a fire realistically - even for Backdraft, it was deemed unrealistic because in a real fire visibility for the firefighters is almost 0%.

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Thanks for the review. I've only just watched the movie. The human aspect resonated with me, especially in light of the recent Sewol disaster. In light of all the stories of heroes onboard the ferry, amidst the horrors and deaths, I guess I was reminded that human stories are important too.

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Watching The Tower, the entire is indeed a homage to Irwin Allen's disaster films. Not only The Towering Inferno, but I see shades of The Swarm (the pregnant woman), Earthquake (stranded in the basement and the flooding of the tunnel), and The Poseidon Adventure.

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