ASHFALL is a Disaster Movie With Heart

This Korean thriller mixes silly, large scale action setpieces with a metaphor about fatherhood.

Among the many takeaways from Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is the lesson that sometimes a rock is a metaphor, sometimes metaphors rock, and, sometimes, a rock is a rock. That wisdom certainly applies to Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun’s disaster actioner Ashfall. The one line pitch reads like an Earth-bound riff on Armageddon: in order to save the Korean peninsula, a military team must acquire a nuclear weapon and use it to help blow up a volcano before a series of eruptions devastates the country. It’s a deliriously silly premise that is plenty entertaining in its own right, before even getting into the parenthood metaphor at the heart of the story. Ashfall is a movie that almost dares viewers to laugh it off at times, but just when you’re ready to dismiss the film, something catches you off guard.

At its best, Ashfall is a story about parenthood and, more specifically, fatherhood. In one corner there’s Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo), a weapons disposal expert and father-to-be. In the other corner is Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), a defector sitting in a North Korean prison and an absentee father. Two different men with something in common and an opportunity to make themselves better. In-chang, despite his best intentions, is out at work when he needs to be with his wife at an ultrasound. He’s so caught up in his work that everything else plays second fiddle. It’s not a choice made out of malice, just the byproduct of his commitment to his job. When he calls his wife and she chides him for being at work, her tone is that of someone who is disappointed but not surprised. And Joon-pyeong has been away from his daughter for so long that he wonders if he can even recognize her.

Quiet moments of reflection for In-chang and Joon-pyeong are sprinkled in throughout the movie, which energizes the story in between setpieces. Co-directors Kim and Lee (who are also credited with the screenplay alongside Kim Tae-yoon, Kwak Jeong-deok, and Lim Joon-hyung) give the story numerous checkpoints, so there is always something on the horizon. We’re told early on by a professor, Kang Bong-rae (Don Lee) that the pesky volcano is primed for a series of four eruptions. To raise the stakes even more, In-chang and his team have to cross the demilitarized zone into North Korea to get their hands on an ICBM, and only Joon-pyeong knows their location.

The action scenes are pretty lively and varied in their scope. There are shootouts, close quarters fights, huge building-toppling car chases, all of which deliver the goods. The camera work is spry and clear, putting viewers right in the middle of the action and making sure they can see it all. Despite all the visual fireworks, it’s the fatherhood stuff that kept me most engaged. I have two young kids and I feel like I’m constantly thinking about how I’m doing, what I could be doing better, and whatever may come my way that I haven’t considered. The juxtaposition of In-chang’s and Joon-pyeong’s fatherhood trajectories highlights the fears of fatherhood (and parenthood in general) front and center. There’s what could go wrong and what has gone wrong, but neither man has considered the potential for what they could be. That gives the film just a tinge of sadness, which helps ground the story as the action becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Despite its wobbles in a few spots (namely all of the supporting characters), Ashfall hits most of the notes it’s aiming for, and is entertaining throughout. It’s fun, silly, thrilling, with just enough sincerity to keep it from feeling like a lark. Right now, mindless action with some heart gets the job done.

Additional reading:

Ashfall is now available on Blu-ray.

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