Big budget disaster films are for the most part an American indulgence, but they’re perhaps the one subgenre where we truly set our filmmakers loose on incorporating melodrama — and that gives them a certain international appeal.
Korea’s answer to the mega-cinema of Devlin/Emmerich and Michael Bay arrives with Ashfall, directed by Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo, a star-studded, action-packed disaster epic with western influences and tropes, but Korean politics and sensibilities. I’m sure that this description is open to a wide range of interpretation, but I certainly enjoyed the heck out of this crowd-pleaser, as did Korea, where the film dominated its opening weekend, taking in more than half the total box office.
A huge 7.8 earthquake rocks Korea, but it’s only the harbinger of the worst yet to come. Geologist and professor Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok, Train to Busan) theorizes that the recent seismic activity is the first of several waves emanating from the eruption of Baekdu Mountain, at the border of North Korea and China. According to his predictive models, the final wave would be catastrophic, leveling the peninsula.
Two teams are quickly briefed and prepped with Kang’s desperate plan to avert the disaster: a strategically placed nuclear device could depressurize the angry magma. One special team is tasked to set and arm the device, and the other to be the muscle — a commando outfit for infiltration and protection. But when one of their planes goes down, skittish Captain Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo, The Handmaiden, Along with the Gods) finds himself suddenly in command of the operation, and without a security detail.
The plan involves stealing the nukes from the North, and to that end the team abducts an insider, Ri Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun, I Saw The Devil, G.I. Joe), forcing him to aid in their mission.
So… the plan is for South Korean forces to steal and detonate a nuke at the Chinese/North Korean border — not the best idea from a geo-political perspective. Both US and North Korean forces become aware of the plan and move to stop it, leading to a three-way race against time. (If anyone is surprised to see that we’re the adversaries of this film, you haven’t been paying attention the last four years).
The movie is absolutely in the vein of western disaster fare with a lot of the same hallmarks and tropes (particularly from Armageddon’s playbook). The film has female supporting characters (Bae Suzy and Jeon Hye-jin) but the drama is mostly testosterone-driven. The professor is the lone geologist entreating the government to act on his unproven theory. The Captain becomes the unlikely leader of a suicide mission, one day from retirement, as his wife is about to give birth to their first child. The sneaky North Korean agent can ultimately be trusted on one thing only — he’ll do whatever it takes to find and save his own daughter. Unlikely allies must team up and work together. You’ve seen all this before, but perhaps not this earnestly or from this particular perspective. The heart of the film is an uneasy alliance and battle of wills between two men from opposite sides of the border, neither of whom trusts the other, but must rely on each other to save both nations.
It’s worth noting — but not necessary to enjoying or understanding the film — that Mount Baekdu is of great cultural and even mythical and spiritual significance. Korean mythology attributes it as the birthplace of the great god-king Dangun, founder of the original Korean kingdom of Gojoseon.
Ashfall bears a theme common to Korean films by showing North and South Koreans working together, and advocating for the reunification of Korea. It closes on a note of shared reconstruction, suggesting the the birth of a new Korea, once again symbolically born from Baekdu Mountain.
FULL THEATER LISTING AS OF JANUARY 17th
CGV Cinemas Buena Park, CA
CGV Cinemas Los Angeles, CA
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CENT Century 20 Daly City, CA
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