South Korean cinema has always been strong on drama, but it has never really managed to produce a decent big-budget disaster film. “Exit” earlier this year was a pleasant surprise, but it was more of an action-comedy hybrid than a disaster film.
“Ashfall” is not a masterpiece by any standard, but directors Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byeong-seo managed to create a decent disaster film that is up to standard in every way, from good acting and character-building to a solid storyline and suspense.
The story takes off when Paektusan, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula and a dormant volcano, comes out of its slumber and undergoes the biggest eruption in recorded history. But the authorities soon learn that the worst is yet to come: Geologist Gang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee) warns that three more eruptions are due, with the last one certain to incinerate both Koreas.
With North Korea in ruins, South Korean officials send an explosive ordinance disposal operative, Capt. Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo), on a covert mission to steal a nuclear warhead from the North to cause an explosion that might neutralize the effects of Paektusan’s devastating final blow. Jo’s team gets help from North Korean spy Lee Jun-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), but Lee proves to be a liability.
This is the first time I watched a Korean disaster film and felt like it was comparable to one out of Hollywood. Of course, there are innate limitations -- the 26 billion won ($22.2 million) budget is gigantic for a Korean film but ho-hum for Hollywood -- but this is the first film that genuinely seemed big.
“Ashfall” (CJ Entertainment)
I’m not just talking about the scale of the disaster. The first volcanic eruption and the ensuing earthquake gobbling up cars, buildings and roads in Seoul were very reminiscent of the 2009 film “2012,” all the way up to the impossible car chase through the crumbling city.
In fact, it felt like the directors took a leaf out of Roland Emmerich’s book several times, as seen in the pacing of the film, the suspense-building, the emphasis on family and other aspects. This is not to say the film felt like a cheap knock-off. In fact, this is among the few Korean disaster movies that didn’t feel like one.
I absolutely hated the film “Haeundae,” which despite being one of the biggest hits in Korean box office history was not a well-made film. One of its biggest flaws was the heavy dosage of “sinpa” -- referring to overdramatization and emotionalism in a movie or drama -- which ruined the final act.
“Ashfall” is everything the 2009 film was supposed to be, depicting a disaster that brings out the personal qualities of the people struggling to stay alive.
The characters were for the most part generic. But the actors’ brilliant performance brought them to life.
The leading pair absolutely shined with their quirky chemistry. Lee’s character as the unpredictable assassin you had to watch out for was easily the most memorable and enjoyable. He had the skills and the intelligence, and he was ruthless but with a hint of unexpected wit.
Ha did just as good a job in bringing something unique to a role that was was written as just another rubber-stamp good guy. He could very well have been the most boring character in the film, but Ha’s facial expressions and delivery made each scene feel genuine.
Honestly, no one else on the special force team leaves much of an impression. But the two leads’ offbeat chemistry was something that turned what could very well have been a sappy bromance into a legitimate bond between two men who understand each other.
Ma’s role was small, but he brought his trademark charm to the part of a lovable nerd, and Jeon Hye-jin as the presidential aide was solid, if not exactly a standout.
Bae Su-sy’s performance as Capt. Jo’s wife was shaky, as the young actress showed she is not yet able to carry roles that demand depth. But the film was clever enough to hide its weak spots by not really focusing on them.
That was what I liked about this film. In any other Korean disaster film, the relationship between Jo and his wife would have been the main storyline. While it does account for a chunk of the runtime, it does not distract us from the center of attention: the disaster. No convoluted misunderstanding, out-of-nowhere conflict, cheesy lines or painfully idiotic comic relief.
The storytelling is pretty straightforward and obvious. It is a standard disaster film that was pretty fun to watch, but in a country where even that is very scarce, I’d say the directors did a good job.
“Ashfall” opens in local theaters Dec. 19.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com