Three of the most bankable stars of South Korea—Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, and Ma Dong-seok—team-up to prevent a disastrous volcanic eruption, in Ashfall. The committed cast kept the film afloat from numerous clichés and jarring tonal shifts. Directors Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo deliver a standard disaster fare that does not add much to the genre.
The sudden eruption of Paektu Mountain rocked Korea and brought about massive death and destruction. Experts agree future eruptions could lead to the decimation of the entire peninsula. To counter another catastrophe, the South Korean government hatches a plan based on a theory by scientist Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok): detonate a 600-kiloton nuclear bomb in one of the mines near the volcano to stop the eruption.
One problem though, South Korea lacks nukes because of a denuclearization program. Enter Captain Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo), an explosives technician tasked to cross the border and locate a North Korean agent named Ri Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun). Ri, a possible double agent, has information about the nuclear stockpile of North Korea.
One of the most important things to understand about Paektu Mountain is its geopolitical significance. Situated in the Chinese-North Korean border, it has been the subject of territorial disputes and negotiations. Imagine the chaos it’ll bring if an actual eruption occurs. Four nations figure in the film: South Korea, North Korea, China, and the United States. The latter has military bases in South Korea and is one of the parties in the denuclearization program. South Korean genre films inject social and political commentaries with abandon. Name one and it most likely criticizes government corruption or social class disparity or corporate callousness. So, it seems strange a film revolving around the likelihood of a four-nation conflict ends up a trope-ridden, popcorn entertainment.
The filmmakers attempt to explore the turbulent socio-political possibilities, but for most of the part, end up offering a smorgasbord of disaster porn. The real disaster is its inconsistent pace and numerous tonal shifts. The first fifteen minutes is quick and engaging until the squad completes the first half of its mission.
From that point on, the film explores more twists and turns than the roads leading to Paektu Mountain. Its persistence to shift tones is also a sight to behold. I sat in awe as the film tries to balance actual human drama and road trip hijinks. It also exploits deus ex machina an absurd number of times that God himself might start to charge rental fees.
Thankfully, the three lead actors have talent and screen presence. Ma Dong-seok has the least screen time. Cast mostly as tough men in action films, Ma goes against the type as a frazzled scientist. Not missing a beat is Ha Jung-woo. Ha, as Captain Jo, transforms from a fearful first-time dad to a confused squad leader, to a skeptical ally, and finally a reluctant hero. Lee Byung-hun had a ball. One can see he had a delightful time playing a double-crossing agent.
Unquestionably, the best part of the film is the chemistry between Lee and Ha. Their odd-couple routine is quite entertaining that I hope these actors reunite in another project befitting their skills. Though they have less to do than their male counterparts, actresses Bae Suzy (as Choi Ji-young, the pregnant wife of Captain Jo) and Jeon Hye-jin (as Jeon Yoo-kyung, as the secretary of the president) acquitted themselves well.
I have made peace with the incredible premise of disaster films a long time ago, so I am quite comfortable suspending disbelief about South Koreans stealing nuclear weapons in North Korea to prevent a volcanic eruption. Ashfall intends to dazzle the audience with Hollywood-style action and effects, nothing more and nothing less. But it proves once again good actors can make mediocre films somewhat bearable.