Film Review: The Tower

There are exploitation films and then some, but this Korean twin-tower disaster epic takes the cake for callously evocative imagery and sentimental schlock.

It’s Christmas Eve at Tower Sky, the most luxurious high-rise building in Seoul, which is also the social and business hub of the city. A lavish “White Christmas” party causes building manager and single father Dae-ho (Sang-kyung Kim) to once again disappoint his little daughter Hana (Mina Cho) by working late. Yoon-hee (Ye-jin Son) secretly loves Dae-ho and volunteers to babysit for him during the party. Meanwhile, another committed workaholic, respected fire chief Young-ki (Kyung-gu Sul) has date-night plans with his ever-patient wife. However, everything goes awry when a pair of helicopters, hired to sprinkle “snow” on the guests, accidentally crash into the building, creating an instant towering inferno of death.

The resemblance to the events of 9/11 in The Tower is unavoidable, and the release of a film like this would have been unthinkable ten years ago. But in this “That’s entertainment” millennial world, we are now treated to the eerily evocative spectacle of gleaming glass spires spouting fire, crazed hordes trying desperately to escape, bodies hurtling to the ground, and courageously embattled firefighters. Technically, it’s all extremely well-done and smoothly photographed, with effects which look terrifyingly real and anything but your usual CGI schlock. Dramatically, however, The Tower once more raises the question: Why can’t the people in these disaster epics ever be anything more than bluntly outlined cartoon figures?

Director Ji-hoon Kim and his writer, Sang-don Kim, deliver a “Grand Hotel” assortment of protagonists who run the predictable gamut of terror, heroism and tears. They throw in a hard-working old cleaning woman, a buffoonish chef too shy to propose to his equally gawky beloved, and a rookie fireman who must prove his manhood. As lethal obstacle after lethal obstacle impedes the trapped characters’ escape from the building, often separating them, there must be at least a dozen monotonously poignant reunion scenes between Hana and her guilty daddy alone.

Under the circumstances, the actors can do little more than deliver the rote emotions of their primitively drawn roles, and it will indeed be interesting to see how this film does in the U.S., where memories may not be so forgiving as to be outweighed by the need for a night of light diversion at the mall.