LKFF 2020 - Ashfall Review
Some of the most interesting South Korean films (such as Shiri, JSA, Tae Guk Gi, Secret Reunion or The Spy Gone North) have drawn upon the divide between North and South to create heart wrenching stories illustrating the absurdity of a now 75-year-old situation. Ashfall aspires to be a new addition to this list by presenting all the inherent qualities of this type of film, but it unfortunately misses the mark and ends up being no more than straight crowed-pleasing entertainment.
The film revolves around a bomb disposal export and father-to-be Jo In-chang (Ha Jung Woo) who has to break double agent Lee Joon-pyeong, aka Ri, (Lee Byung Hun) out of prison in North Korea as Mount Paektu threatens to erupt. Their goal is to help steal some nuclear warheads which must be planted and set off underneath the volcano before the peninsula is wiped out.
Ashfall kicks off in the best way possible for an action film, with a visually impressive earthquake sequence which sees Jo make his way through a crumbling Seoul with a number gravity defying numeric stunts. It manages to widen eyes and sketch a smile to set a clear tone - credibility isn’t Ashfall’s goal, but who cares. It is scenes like this that continue to demonstrate that South Korean blockbusters remain an important part of today’s cinema landscape.
As is usually the case with South Korean films, under the cover of a big blockbuster, Ashfall effortlessly brings together disaster, action, thriller, espionage, drama and comedy elements inside a maelstrom of military compounds, desolate forests and ravaged landscapes. Despite being far from cinegenic, this setting has enough merit to create a distinctive end of the world flavour, adding to the urgency of the situation the protagonists have been thrown into. However, what it doesn’t manage to do is hide the fact that what it offers is just a much less silly take on run-of-the-mill action blockbusters spawned by the likes of Armageddon or 2012.
In addition to impressive visual effects, Ashfall stands out by the casting of its two main protagonists upon which rests the scrawny heart of the story. From his first scene, Ha Jung Woo instantly brings adequate empathic and daring qualities to make Jo a great lead character the audience can easily empathise with. The introduction of Lee Byung Hun’s Ri, a delectable double agent whose apparition 45 minutes into proceedings clearly re-sparks its breathless plot, gives the actor the opportunity to create the ambivalent type of character he clearly affections, and which earned him another Best Actor trophy at this year Grant Bell Award, the Korean equivalent of the Oscars.
Despite a criminally underutilised Ma Dong Seok (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil), as the professor who provides the plan to prevent Mount Paektu’s cataclysmic eruption, the rest of the cast manages to maintain audience interest in-between action scenes. However, Ashfall falls short when it comes to the characterisation of its protagonists, such as Jo’s team of exasperatingly expendable characters, something that South Korean cinema usually excels at. The presence of five writers, two of which were the directors, perhaps being the reason why, as is the unlikely combination of co-directors Byung-seo Kim (Cold Eyes) and Hae-jun Lee (My Dictator) who both have their own career as, respectively, cinematographer-director and writer-director.
Under the cover of a big blockbuster, Ashfall nearly succeeds in creating another stepstone in the North/South Korea divide sub-genre thanks to a charismatic duo and impressive visual effects, but it unfortunately fails in delivering a compelling enough characterisation to make it more than Saturday evening entertainment.
Ashfall played at the London Korean Film Festival in October.