It's the other Korean firefighters film from 2000, after Siren
. Released exactly two weeks after it, to be precise. It's bigger and glossier than Siren
and I'm sure it made more money at the box office, but beyond that... well, to be fair, its second half is better than its first.
Bad sign: firefighter film. Remember what I said about firefighter films last time? Well, it's true here too. I've heard good things about one called Lifeline from Hong Kong, but the general principle remains that firefighter films are wearing a ball and chain. "Big fires are exciting!" I can see the argument. I'll go further and guess that I'd have liked the first twenty minutes of this movie had they spent ten minutes beforehand introducing us to the characters, but they didn't. Nope, it's straight into the conflagration. Potentially interesting scenes are thus thrown away because the protagonists are anonymous men in firemen's uniforms whom we don't know from Adam.
This was my second attempt at watching this film, by the way. Last time I just lost interest and turned it off. This time I managed to make it through, but the first half might as well be teflon-coated. You'll be watching it, but your attention slides away. You'll realise that you don't really know what happened in the last ten minutes because you were thinking about last night's dinner or something. Not a good sign.
This is particularly unfortunate because they've got some good material going with their characters. I can recognise it, even if I can't connect with it because I don't know who's who. This builds over the course of the film and pays off with, among other things, a strong, emotional death. I didn't hate the firemen at all. They seemed nice enough. After a while I even learned to recognise one of two of them.
However that's only half the story. As a firefighter film, it's underwhelming... but it's also a lot like a serial killer film, except with an arsonist. (All firefighter films have an arsonist in them. This is the law.) Siren
's felt like an afterthought, but this one's a much higher-profile nutcase with childhood trauma, a female doctor who's trying to help him and access to a hospital of children. It becomes his film, really, not the firemen's. There's an investigator (Gyu-ri Kim) trying to hunt him down and a policeman telling her to stop talking about arson because he's not interested in the possibility. She's not impressed. "It wasn't that there wasn't an arsonist, but you couldn't catch one." I liked this half of the film better. The two female characters in particular are far more memorable than any of the firemen, although in fairness this is partly because they're not firemen.
This is also where the film gets more noticeably Korean. It's not as surreptitiously evil as Siren
, but it has its moments and one of those would be a small boy repeatedly stabbing his own hand with a big knife.
Overall, it's a thoroughly competent film that does everything right except in the small matter of being dull. The fires look spectacular and it's possible to admire the way they're almost alive, with whirlpools and tentacles. The drama's solid and its finale is emotional. In the end, I quite liked it... but that's ignoring most of the first half, since after all that's nearly what I was doing while watching it. It's received critical praise and I can not only understand that but even to a fair extent agree.
Compared with Siren
, it's both better and worse. It's bigger, glossier and more competent. You could reasonably call it a blockbuster, whereas Siren
felt like jumped-up TV. Importantly it doesn't commit atrocities, e.g. Siren
's incidental music, but I preferred Siren
's characters. Jin-Young Jang in particular is more adorable than anyone within ten miles of Libera Me. Both films have their strengths and get quite good once you've fought your way through the firemen, but frankly I wouldn't recommend either. Firefighter movies, ugh.
"This moron doesn't want to die in a fire."