Sunday, October 19, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Review] Super Typhoon (超强台风) (World Premiere)


There must be something that this movie is doing right for it to be selected to be in competition for the main prize in this year's edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival. It's a big budgeted action film, and having not seen that many Chinese films besides some of the independent works, this one had all the trappings of a genre as inspired in the style of Michael Bay, with the stylistic multitude of characters mouthing encouraging words (minus vulgarities of course), fearless leaders, patriotism, and plenty of action tracked with slow motion to some heart-thumping, emotionally wrenching fanfare.

The opening outer-space tracking shot from the Sun leads us past Mercury and Venus, before Google Earth takes over and already sets the tone for a natural disaster waiting in the wings, with a huge formation of a typhoon in the South China Sea awaiting to unleash its mayhem. Codenamed Blue Whale, it will grow to an eventual Force 18 typhoon, reputed to be an unprecedented looming natural disaster that China, or the world, would face thus far.

Wu Gang stars as city mayor Xu, an action type of character who doesn't shy away from getting his hands dirty should the situation calls for it. Responsible to make decisions after the central government left it to the local authorities to take charge, he has to balance the possibility of safety, versus the economical losses the city would suffer should the warnings be false. The first hour is indeed spent on debates and evaluating the pros and cons of a mass city evacuation against the clock, and external help is available from his primary school teacher turned meteorological expert Mrs Cheng (Song Xiaoying). The dilemma of leadership is clearly on display here during crisis management, as everyone got to work with incomplete information when dealing with the impending disaster.

There's a myriad of characters in the movie, each presenting themselves with various problems and challenges that our heroic mayor has to overcome, each time with the nodding approval of his proud teacher. There are children in school, ships whose owners refuse to abandon, a foreigner who's a typhoon chaser in the same vein as those tornado chasers in Twister, and a clinic intern (played by Liu Xiaowei) who has to deal with a pregnant lady in an offshore island. And the mayor presents himself as a calming force each time he announces his presence, but to much comical effect especially with the fanfare theme music of his playing in the background.

While we all know that Japanese versions of movie posters are nothing short of being beautifully designed and eye popping, it's no different for this one too, except for a bit of an exaggeration, given gleaming city towers which were non-existent in the location this was set in, and while there was a positive demonstration of the military might of the Chinese, there sure wasn't any jet planes which were utilized. The set action sequences might be repetitive given the continuous pounding of waves of brown water onto land, with a mixture of camera tricks, green screen and what I thought to be signature Japanese model making all thrown in to give the illusion of a massive disaster.

But what probably negated the good technical efforts, were some of the obvious nagging implausibilities, like a boat chase in double quick time, and seriously, a much maligned shark who probably is just as confused how he got into the warehouse in the first place, only to be hunted by a gang of burly men with wooden stakes.

What I felt the movie did right, was to pay tribute and homage to the spirit and solidarity of the Chinese people, especially after the most recent earthquake she suffered in the Sichuan province, and I thought that real life heroics got epitomized in the reel story here. It also sets about being a mouthpiece that the authorities are always willing to help their own citizens however big or small in matters that are macroscopic, or even selfish, micro ones, and that they are a voice of reason and compassion.

Perhaps it was the very obvious ecological message and warning that was given verbatim during the film, which was in line with the theme of the festival, gave it some gravitas in being selected as part of this year's programme. Other than that, it's your usual blockbuster styled movie that tried to have all the ingredients to make it one entertaining joyride for the audience. Those that prefer their movies with a lot more thought in them, would be warned to stay clear of this, unless you too, like me, are interested to check out the progress of Chinese cinema blockbusters.

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