Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Against the odds, Ashfall works at a dramatic level, largely thanks to the hard work of its cast and a real sense of commitment to the story that holds no matter how silly things get."

Ashfall is a strange choice of title for this unexpected South Korean mega-hit. Of all the disasters in the film, it's probably the least spectacular.

Remember how the US piled one disaster on top of another in Roland Emmerich's 2012? This is the point at which South Korea steps us and says "Hold my beer." Sure, human civilisation itself is not in peril this time, but it doesn't need to be, because the rather more adept Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo give us characters we actually care about, making the events we see much more meaningful. It begins with an earthquake taking place just as explosives expert Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo) is on his way to join his pregnant wife Choi Ji-Young (Bae Suzy), who is getting a scan in the hospital. In scenes reminiscent of The Quake, skyscrapers crumble, Jo frantically weaving his car between them. Many filmmakers would have found enough to keep them busy with this scenario alone, but in Ashfall, everything goes one louder.

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This quake, you see, is only the first of four likely to be generated as a series of magma chambers inside Baekdu Mountain collapse. Only one scientist has a plan that might save the peninsula from utter devastation, and it's a long-shot. If a mixed team of soldiers and techies can cross stealthily into North Korea and rescue spy Ri Joon-Pyeong (Lee Byung-Hun) from a high security prison camp, he may be able to help them steal uranium from missiles in a US-guarded base which they could then use to blow a hole in the side of the volcano to relieve the pressure. In order to avoid an international incident that could spark a nuclear war, however, they can't kill anyone. Attempts at international collaboration are rife with double-crosses. And Ri may be a double agent. When one of the two planes sent on the mission is downed by the thick ash in the air, Jo, roped into the techie team, unexpectedly finds himself the leader, a job for which he is completely unprepared. And his wife might give birth at any minute. And he hasn't told her where he's going.

With a plot as complicated as this it would be easy to go astray, delivering a series of clumsy escalations without any real sense of tension. Against the odds, Ashfall works at a dramatic level, largely thanks to the hard work of its cast and a real sense of commitment to the story that holds no matter how silly things get. The action direction is of variable quality and sometimes the CGI lets it down, but overall it's a lot more coherent than one would expect. The pacing never lets up for a moment and the dramatic tension between Jo and Ri - which occasionally spills over into comedy - holds the attention even though most viewers will have a fair idea how their relationship will ultimately pan out. What's more, the action isn't limited to those on the mission, with every supporting character getting moments of peril and opportunities to be heroic. Bae makes her character much more than a helpless love interest and there's also good work from Jeon Hye-jin as a civil servant determined to give her country - and Jo's mission - the best chance they can get.

In keeping with Korean cinematic tradition, there's more sentiment here than most Westerners are used to, but it doesn't weigh the film down - there's too much happening for that. The North Korean public is presented as cowed and despairing, in need of rescue by those from the South, but this isn't a difficult position to relate to in light of what's going on, and otherwise there's relatively little politics. Jo is a likeable central character and Lee keeps us guessing with his rakish portrayal of the spy. Ashfall may be over the top in every way but it has a solid core and it certainly knows how to entertain.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2020
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When Baekdu Mountain unexpectedly erupts and threatens to cause an earthquake that could devastate the Korean peninsula, a South Korean team must enter North Korea and steal American-guarded nuclear material in order to stop it.

Director: Byung-seo Kim, Hae-jun Lee

Writer: Byung-seo Kim, Hae-jun Lee

Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Ha Jung-woo, Jeon Hye-jin, Ma Dong-seok

Year: 2019

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: South Korea


London Korean 2020

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