Sunday 12 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison unearths the South Korean blockbuster ASHFALL (Byung-seo Kim & Hae-jun Lee)

Cecil B. De Mille once explained that a good film should start with an earthquake and develop to a crescendoWell now we've got another one of those. After Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and the Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, include Byung-seo Kim and Hae-jun Lee’s Ashfall which is being pushed as an event film for South Korean cinema and is headed up by their big stars Byung-Hun Lee (I Saw the Devil, the new Magnificent Seven, P.S.A.) and Jung-woo Ha (The Handmaiden, 1987, Yellow Sea). Their unit are trying to do an effects super spectacle for a mere seventeen million U.S dollars. But that’s not the problem.

The opening holds promise with Ha’s team in their Hurt Locker gear digging out a rusted bomb.  But he is bored with all the procedures, takes off his face mask and bangs the thing with a spanner. They’ve never had one go off in the history of the unit and he’s only got a day to go before his retirement anyway. He’s going to take off with his pregnant wife Suzy Bae.

However, (the fictional) Baekdu Mountain volcano is about to blow and take three quarters of the peninsula with it. Scruffy professor Dong-seok Ma, who predicted it years back, has a plan. They have to send a unit into North Korea, steal the nukes they are surrendering there as part of the de-nuclearisation program and use them to blow up a copper mine next to the magma lakes. That will drain off the menace. So a secret nuclear explosion on the Chinese border without telling the Americans who are racing in with their weapons leveled. 

The plan’s guide is the imprisoned double agent Lee, located by a G.P.S. transmitter under his skin. He’s got issues of his own having been in the cage so long that his daughter by his junkie wife may not recognise him. To give them credit, none of the on-screen characters has much confidence in this. Well, it’s only a movie Ingrid.  

Never the less Ha and his (sadly under-characterised) lot suit up to fly the in the plane next to one full of elite troops who are going to do all the rough stuff. Of course Ha and Lee end up forming an uneasy partnership to complete the mission.

The explosions, earthquake and tidal wave are quite well realised and there are a few nice touches like using toppled statues of The Great Leader to locate their way through the chaos. Killer is that we keep on getting things that were better in other films – the quake fissure running along the buildings in Aftershock, the macho types dropping out to leave the tech guys to do the heroics in Executive Decision, the military only equipped with non-lethal ammunition in Southern Comfort, or the speeding escape vehicle showered with big bang debris in Chain Reaction just for starters. At least they don’t outrun the shockwave here.

We end up with an action effects piece undermined by familiar plot and visuals. Finally, it’s kind of boring – occasionally accomplished film making wrapped around a core of cliché. 

We’ve seen the leads do better.

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