In disaster movies, the struggle is never fair. The villain is an unstoppable, inexorable force of nature, which you cannot hope to fight and can barely hope to survive. In the Korean blockbluster Haeundae, it is a mega-tsunami, a series of 100-meter waves roaring towards a Korean tourist haven at 500 miles an hour. Warning time: 10 minutes.

A Google search tells me that Haeundae is the Waikiki of Korea (what this movie will do for tourism, I am curious to see). The film rolls over its impossibly crowded shore, dotted with beach umbrellas and thick with sunbathing tourists - over a million of them. Skyscrapers and luxury hotels stretch overhead. A Cultural Expo has just begun, drawing dignitaries from all over the world. These glossy, colorful shots are juxtaposed with scenes in a sterile white lab, where the unheeded scientist Kim Hwi tries to calculate the approach of doomsday, and dark, increasingly ominous scenes of the earthquakes seething under the water.

Like other movies of the genre, Haeundae sets up its characters against the tension of impending doom, so that you’ll care when you see them running for their lives. The audience has to, because, simply put, a force of nature does not. As ineluctable as gravity, waves tower over skyscrapers and bridges, fill the horizon, dissolve buildings and other trappings of civilization like sandcastles, sweep people along like so much dirt, and separate lovers, friends, and family without special dispensations for love or courage or virtue. And the human powers that be - the leaders, the VIPs, middle management at the Korean Coast Guard - will not care until it is too late.

Unlike many movies of the genre, however, Haeundae is actually well-acted, and stars characters interesting enough to watch even without the foreshadowing of doom. The scientist Hui, estranged from his wife and daughter, is played with intensity and helpless desperation by Park Joong-Hoon. His Cassandra warnings and slow reclamation of fatherhood share screen-time with the love story of Yeon-Hee and Man-Shik - two natives who grew up by the sea, lost loved ones to the sea, and continue to work by the sea.

I last saw Ha Ji-Won (Yeon-Hee) in a dismally clichéd horror movie, mostly forgettable but for one scene: her character was talking to a blind girl, and was then asked a simple question. It was a stock horror movie question that has been asked in so many movies that it should have lost all power to chill, except that this time, you actually saw Ha’s pulse quicken and the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She was too good for that movie, but she has a more interesting role in Haeundae, and even seems comfortable with the regional dialect (though I’m no judge). She is so lovely and vulnerable as Yeon-Hee that it almost defies belief that Man-shik could ignore her for so long. Man-shik is not the ideal hero - he has some peculiar ideas of fatherhood, an alcohol problem, and a guilty conscience - but he’s good when it counts most, and Sol makes him likable, and downright heartbreaking when you see the torment beneath the façade.

So far, so good - where the characterization falters is in the comic relief, which is not so much relieving as painfully embarrassing. Dong-Choon, a friend of Yeon-Hee’s, is meant to be humorous, but is so unnecessarily over-the-top and grating (his scenes with his mother may make you wince). His dizzying heights of stupidity make it hard to care about him until one touching scene at the end. And then there is the preternaturally obnoxious character of Heemee, a young tourist from Seoul , who has a baffling romance with the sweet lifeguard (Yeon-Hee’s brother) Hyeong-Shik. Even worse are Heemee’s horrific friends, though I understand they were necessary to make Heemee’s character somewhat bearable by comparison, and to further plotlines with the vile trio of men they pick up on the beach. Concerning those men, I can only say that they were so awful that I almost cheered for the tsunami because it seemed like the best way to get rid of them.

Haeundae is best when it stays simple. The best humor wasn’t in the over-the-top scenes of drunken lunacy, or Dong-Choon’s ballet steps across a bridge as he tried to dodge falling debris (yes, this was meant to be funny). The biggest laugh was given to a quick exchange between Man-Shik and Hyeong-Shik about his growing relationship with Heemee, and that was more in the delivery than anything else:

Hyeong-Shik: “So, let’s imagine a girl, a rich girl from Seoul , who goes to a good University, and is really pretty…there’s no way I could be with someone like that, right?”
Man-Shik: (without skipping a beat, barely looking up) “Of course you couldn’t.”

The tremors under the sea were frightening, but none of those CGI scenes were as effective as the sight of tiny sea creatures skittering frantically for land, or birds streaming for cover. And while there were tragic scenes of mass death and destruction, and sobbing children being air-lifted from their parents, left to drown, one of the sadder moments was the brief glimpse of a shoe floating by in the tsunami’s wake - one of the pair that a weary mother was going to buy for her son, so that he could go on a job interview.

Haeundae gives us a fair cross-section of humanity at a moment of all-consuming crisis, with believable sketches of the relationships and conflicts and coincidences and ironies of everyday life. The world of the tourists, the world of the locals, and the intersections and clashes betwixt them, are interesting enough to get lost in. Many of the major characters do not ever meet each other, and many minor characters reappear in surprising ways. (Look out for and remember the woman who peddles snacks.) As in most disaster movies, Haeundae shows estrangements and reconciliations, cowardice and courage, betrayal and self-sacrifice, and villainy and heroism. If it doesn’t show the thousand shades of grey between all of these extremes, it hints at them more than most movies of the genre do.

And those who like the genre for its shock factor won’t be disappointed. There are powerful visual effects, scenes of nightmarish suspense, and though there isn’t much gore, there are plenty of horrifying deaths and almost-deaths. (One particular scene in an elevator will haunt me for the rest of my life.) And those who crave resolution will find a quiet, surprisingly hopeful ending when the movie finally subsides into the aftermath of tragedy. Losses are mourned, heroes are celebrated, and the survivors bravely begin to rebuild a world after it falls apart.