Only nukes can save the day in Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo’s volcanic blockbuster.
“Where’s the map?”
“Was it important? Because I ate it”
It’s true that last year I caught the excellent action-comedy Exit, but upon sitting down to watch Ashfall – which screens as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival – I realised it had been a long time since I saw a real honest-to-god disaster movie. Especially one that had nothing to do with kaiju. And it occurred to me that I haven’t actually missed the genre. As I started watching Ashfall and its opening newsposition telling us that North Korean-based Mount Baekdu was erupting, I was starting to remember why the genre bored me. And then an entire city collapsed, and I was suddenly on board.
Seismologist Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok) has been studying Mount Baekdu for a while, and had predicted this would happen, and is recruited by Jeon Yoo-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin) to help. Kang has a plan: to set off a massive (read nuclear) explosion within the copper mines close to the mountain as a means of reducing volcanic pressure, thus preventing any further eruptions. The plan has a slim chance of working, but that isn’t the only problem. With North Korea on the verge of complete denuclearisation, an explosion on the China-Korea border would only complicate matters and it immediately catches the attention of the Americans, who are desperate to shut the operation down.
Nevertheless, explosives expert and expectant father captain Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo) is told to go ahead with the mission of stealing uranium from North Korea, arming the lightweight bomb and bringing to the edge of the magma pits in the mines. But before that, they have to track down North Korean double-agent Lee Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun). Jo and his team are naturally reluctant, not only due to the danger involved, but also because they were just days away from being discharged. With the Americans and North Koreans trying to stop them, a ticking volcanic time bomb and Lee’s uncertain allegiances, the mission proves … not quite as straightforward as they expected.
Ashfall sure does cram a lot into its 2-hour runtime, and it wastes nothing by wrecking half of Seoul and the majority of North Korea in its opening scenes. It’s a thrilling way to start the film and while the “initial disaster” bit has been around since before Godzilla chomped on his first sailors, they’re usually small affairs, slower in pace – designed to kick of a mystery. Ashfall doesn’t care for any of that and gives us one of its biggest scenes of metropolitan destruction in its first fifteen minutes. It’s not exactly a hyper-realistic action sequence or anything, but it sets the tone nicely for what’s to come.
In a lot of ways, the movie has a lot of similarities to many of Roland Emmerich’s best (and worst) disaster epics. This is most notable in its fairly big scale – though it never exactly goes full 2012 (thank goodness) there are plenty of showstopper moments, mixed in with some smaller human-level pieces of action, and tense stand-offs. The mix stops the excitement from getting stale, which means that while it does spend a fair amount of its time taking breathers, the story can dedicate more time to what we came to this sort of film for.
But it’s not just a bunch of blank slate nobodies going from set piece to set piece. The characters are all well developed (relative to similar films) and have plenty of scenes where they’re allowed to chat, get to know one another and add much-needed levity and human drama. Lee Byung-hun stands out in his antihero role, and his effortless charm makes his character easy to root for. His chemistry with Ha’s Jo In-chang is spot-on and the two share some of the best bits of dialogue in the movie. But everyone does good here, especially Bae Suzy who is given the thankless role of the audience surrogate with little agency other than being pregnant and waiting for In-chan to come home. She has the acting chops and the character potential to be more than just a damsel. Ma Dong-seok is a bit wasted here in his Jeff Goldblum role, as he’s relegated to just sitting at a computer watching percentages go up and down.
Ashfall is reminiscent of the West’s obsession with disaster films back in the 90s but with fewer of the mistakes we’d often see. Directors Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo mellow the edge of what would otherwise be a dour movie with fun exchanges, and the effects work is good enough throughout that even when it is being a bit on a dreary side it’s at least pretty fun to look at. Sometimes it’s good to sit back and just watch things collapse and explode – so I’m thrilled that it’s one of the films that are being screened in-person at this year’s London Korean Film Festival. Honestly, I’m surprised I liked this as much as I did. If you’re not into big, dumb disaster films this isn’t going to win you over in any way: it’s loaded with convenient lucky breaks and clichés but hey, just because there’s an earthquake doesn’t mean it has to be ground-breaking.
Verdict: Ashfall combines traditional action and disaster tropes to make a fairly straightforward but very well-made blockbuster.
Overall entertainment: A surprising 8/10
Funniest moment: Lee and Jo pointing guns at each other the entire drive
Symbolism: A literal crossroads just as the third act starts. Subtle.
Great balls of fire: Goodness gracious!
Damo: Spoilers for the final episode, I guess
Also known as: 백두산 Baekdusan, lit. Mount Baekdu
Directors: Lee Hae-jun, Kim Byung-seo
Writers: Byung-seo Kim, Tae-Yoon Kim, Jeong-deok Kwak, Hae-jun Lee, Joon-hyung Lim
Lee Byung-hun – Lee Joon-pyeong
Ha Jung-woo – Jo In-chang
Ma Dong-seok – Kang Bong-rae
Jeon Hye-jin– Jeon Yoo-kyung
Bae Suzy – Choi Ji-young