"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tower Sky. Whatever you expect tonight, rest assured you'll see more."
During the final preparations for an extravagant Christmas party at Tower Sky, a lavish twin-tower complex in Seoul, a small fire breaking out in the kitchen alerts manager Dae-ho to the fact that the building sprinkler system isn’t working. Immediately, he alerts Tower Sky’s owner President Jo to the problem but is told in no uncertain terms that the event will go ahead as planned, nonetheless.
However, as the party gets underway with a spectacular aerial display the gasps and amazement of guests soon turn to horror and fear as a helicopter crashes into the building, starting a blaze that quickly becomes an inferno...
In sitting down to watch a film for review, I strive above all else to leave pre-conceived notions of what I'm about to see at the door; going in as 'blind" as possible, in terms of any outside influences, and allowing the film in question to speak for itself. In an ever more 'connected' world, that can at times be a difficult aim to achieve and even if every overarching statement or critique is ignored prior to viewing, at the very least feelings about the earlier work of a director and/or specific cast members tend to leave an indelible mark. Add to that, pre-release marketing in trailers etc focusing on narrative/visual elements that may or may not, in truth, form part of the film's core; personal genre preferences; as well as thoughts in general regarding the issue of Independent vs. blockbuster, and you could almost say an open mind is an imaginary concept, for good or bad.
From a personal point of view, more than almost any other film in recent memory, the idea of The Tower (inspired by The Towering Inferno) repeatedly and increasingly raised what could easily be interpreted as red flags from right back when I first heard the title: It's a blockbuster to the nth degree, but as many of you will already be aware I'm far more a fan of Independent Korean cinema; it's a disaster movie which as often as not signifies a predictability combined with a favouring of visual spectacle at the expense of character depth and viewer empathy; and director Kim Ji-hoon's previous film was 'Sector 7' which flopped at the Box Office and was rather critically slated.
All in all, though I was interested in watching The Tower (after all, what Korean film would I not want to see?), my excitement and anticipation was perhaps less than might otherwise have been the case. In fact, I'd almost go as far as saying that the main draw for me was the casting of actress Son Ye-jin and actor Sol Kyung-gu in starring roles.
So, is The Tower a check-box list of high-spectacle disaster movie clichés? Well, yes, in part but it nonetheless ultimately succeeds in being more entertaining and exciting than many films of its genre; remaining engaging throughout and even managing to be somewhat moving, on occasion.
As The Tower begins, preparations are in full swing for a spectacular Christmas party in Tower Sky and over the first 30 minutes of the running time - almost to the second - we are gradually introduced to the many main characters, in succession:
There's the head of the entire Tower Sky complex, President Jo (Cha In Pyo), whose overriding priority is the production of an utterly breathtaking, unforgettable event for the benefit and enjoyment of VIP guests and residents; the divorced building manager, Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyung), determined to convince his little daughter that Santa truly exists and who is secretly in love with Tower Sky's beautiful events organiser; the events organiser herself, Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin), tasked with ensuring every aspect of the party comes together without incident; and, of course, the dedicated fireman, Young-ki (Sol Kyung-gu), willing to put his job and the safety of others above his own needs and personal life etc, etc. All are here - in fact virtually every archetypal disaster movie character you could think of is present - but though a number of character arcs and sub-plots (both individual and combined) can largely be predicted with ease within just moments of a character's introduction, they are each so genre-specially 'classic' that any omissions would likely only have served to make them all the more conspicuous by their absence.
The timing of this first narrative stage is long enough to allow viewer empathy to be built, certainly as much as is possible considering the myriad of characters present and the limits of the genre itself. This is helped further by the inclusion of some gently humorous character eccentricities and it must be said that director Kim Ji-hoon should be credited for managing to make the film's pre-disaster section truly feel 'Christmassy' which, considering the fact that I first watched The Tower in May, is quite an achievement.
Of course, let's not forget that The Tower is a disaster movie through and through and, as such, as the disaster in question begins the film majorly steps up in gear. The astonishing imagery begins slightly prior to this point with high-altitude helicopters enabling Christmas snowflakes to fall and, for me, the subsequent visual juxtaposition of shards of glass shown crashing in slow motion from the same angle perfectly sums up the change in tone while being easily as evocative as any in the entire film. However, that's not to belittle the later fire and action sequences in any way whatsoever: Every flame looks utterly organic, every shattering window and torrent of water appears as perilous as if it was real and plus points must really be given to a film about an inferno that can threaten several characters with drowning.
As far as underlying themes and social references are concerned, in the midst of all the mayhem, death and destruction there is a commentary (of sorts) contrasting the 'haves and have nots' in Korean society within the microcosm of Tower Sky - an issue addressed in an absolute plethora of Korean films over the years. While in this instance it largely serves as a surface plot device rather than a deeper social dissection, it does facilitate some poignancy in the latter stages of the narrative at the same time as underling the overarching statement of "Do onto others...".
I hardly need say that being a disaster movie, and a Korean one at that, The Tower regularly moves between action and melodrama. This works fairly well too though lack of character depth meant I was more often touched than moved. However, the very final scene in The Tower - taking place in the aftermath of the inferno - is by far the most genuinely emotional of any present: From a mid-angle distance, the camera centres on a main character's partner as she is told of the impact of the disaster on her and her family. Without dialogue heard, we watch her break down in tears, falling to the ground on her knees, and in one fell swoop director Kim Ji-hoon truly tugs at our heartstrings, bringing a tear to the eye with ease. While the stunning effects and imagery earlier seen are the core focus of The Tower throughout, to my mind this tiny coda vignette stands as almost as memorable; remaining in my thoughts as the final credits rolled.
The entire cast of The Tower give perfectly acceptable performances but such a large number of main characters combined with the aforementioned lack of character depth means that few really get a chance to spread their wings and show what they are truly capable of.
Sol Kyung-gu, as fireman Young-ki, is certainly given a better opportunity than most to excel but that’s simply because his character’s arc forms the hub of conclusion of the tale.
However, above all for me, I feel it’s rather a shame that the character of Yoon-hee wasn’t developed to the point where actress Son Ye-jin could show her incredible acting prowess. Though her performance is easily as accomplished as the narrative will allow, the true extent of her talent is, sadly, never really shown.
The Tower is a visually breathtaking high-spectacle disaster movie that, in spite of predictability, ultimately succeeds in being more entertaining and exciting than many films of its genre; remaining engaging throughout and even managing to be somewhat moving, on occasion.
Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Sang-kyung, Son Ye-jin
Directed by: Kim Ji-hoon
The DVD edition reviewed here is the UK (Region 2) Entertainment One release of The Tower. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present. The picture is absolutely exemplary and compliments the sumptuous visuals and spectacular effects throughout.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0; each being well balanced and noticeably nuanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided for both the main feature and all of the extras.
• Director: Kim Ji-hoon
• Format: PAL, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
• Subtitles: English/Korean/None
• Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1/Dolby 2.0
• Region: Region 2
• Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
• Number of discs: 1 DVD
• Classification: 15
• Distributor: Entertainment One
• Run Time: 117 minutes (approx.)