ASHFALL 백두산 Is an Exhilarating Ride That Thrills With Its Spectacle and Heartwarming Brotherhood
An unexpected eruption of Korea’s tallest volcano sitting on the China-North Korea border leaves the peninsula in shambles. When seismologist Bong-rae suggests a theory that could possibly stop the explosion, In-chang, a bomb squad agent, is given his last mission before returning home to his wife, Ji-young. In-chang must now seek and join hands with rogue North Korean elite officer Joon-pyeong to stop the imminent devastation.
Directors: Lee Hae-jun, Kim Byung-seo
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, Ma Dong-seok a.k.a Don Lee, Jeon Hye-jin, Bae Suzy
Year: 2019 (Korea) | 2020 (Singapore)
Country: South Korea
Runtime: 128 minutes
Seriously, what can South Korea’s film industry not do? From small indie films to huge blockbusters, Korea’s film industry is thriving. Coming from Dexter Studios, the production company behind the Along with the Gods franchise, Ashfall is an epic blockbuster disaster movie that succeeds in crafting an intense adventure that is well balanced with comedic and heartfelt moments throughout.
Ashfall follows Jo In-chang, head of an explosive disposal team, who is about to finish his service. However, right before his last day, a volcano on Baekdu Mountain erupts and causes destruction all around the Korean peninsula. Jo is then tasked to join forces with a rogue North Korean spy, Lee Joon-pyeong, to acquire nuclear explosives and detonate it at the mountain in an attempt to reduce the effects of the eruptions.
Even though Ashfall is marketed as a disaster movie, it feels more like a road trip movie instead. While road trip movies show characters travelling from one place to another, it is the emotional journey of the characters and their interactions with each other or the environment that is ultimately rewarding for viewers. And this is the highlight of Ashfall – the chemistry between its lead characters during their journey.
The chemistry between Ha Jung-woo and Lee Byung-hun is exceptional, especially with the huge difference in both characters’ personalities. Ha Jung-woo plays a bomb squad captain nearing the end of his service, and all he wants is to finish his term peacefully and spend time with his pregnant wife. Ha’s performance as a clumsy and childish leader is incredibly entertaining, and his constant whining leads to hilarious bickerings with Lee Byung-hun’s character. Lee plays a rogue North Korean spy captured after his government discovers his betrayal, but he is still regarded as dangerous by the South Korean team. Lee’s tough guy act is contrasted by Ha’s childish and naïve nature, which leads to comedic interactions that forge a brotherhood between the two opposing characters.
Besides the two main leads, actor Ma Dong-seok is his charismatic self as usual, stealing every scene he appears in. His portrayal of a nerdy seismologist is ironic when compared to his burly physique, but it’s this disparity that makes his character more lovable.
The film is also praiseworthy for its realistic visual effects that is comparable with bigger budget Hollywood disaster films, especially the opening scene. Ha’s character is stuck in traffic when the first eruption happens, triggering a huge earthquake that causes buildings to collapse and Ha is forced to drive against traffic among the falling debris to survive. The effects are breathtaking and vivid, even more so when watched in the cinema, and the spectacle of destruction is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat for the rest of the movie.
However, the film does have its downsides too. Filled with clichés and predictable plot points, the film doesn’t require viewers to think much except to go along with what happens on-screen. Which means if you are hoping for a film that is intelligent and keeps you guessing until the very end, you will be disappointed with this.
But if you’re looking to be entertained for two hours and to shut off your brain and enjoy an adrenaline pumping disaster film with humour and spectacle, Ashfall will be an extremely fun time.
The Korean disaster blockbuster will be out in cinemas on 2 January, but for now, you can catch the trailer here.