22nd Udine Far East Film Festival: Ashfall Review

Recently, filmmakers have been attracted to making disaster films more than ever. Whether they show that we would be swallowed by a tsunami, a whirlwind or fires, blown away by a comet, burnt by an erupting volcano or perished by inhaling poisonous gases, the productions have become bold, filled with endless CGI, harrowing action, but often unimaginative narratives

2019 has been fairly successful for Korean disaster films, including Ashfall, Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo’s production, which had the highest domestic cinema admission during its December release. The unexpected duo of directors, Lee Hae-jun known for A Hard Day and Kim Byung-seo for Cold Eyes, immersed themselves into directing the film with the biggest stars of today’s Korean cinema: Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo and Ma Dong-seok. However, Ashfall is not a film inciting deeper thoughts; it might look good on the big screen, but its absurd narrative makes it for an agonizing watch. 


Photo © CJ Entertainment 

Baekdu Mountain, a volcano which is located on the border between China and North Korea, erupts. While South Korean’s capital of Seoul experiences a powerful earthquake, North Korea is buried under ashes and debris. To make the situation worse, a Korean-American professor, Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok: Train to Busan), who is mocked for his discovery, seems to be the only person who predicted the catastrophe and still believes that there is more to come. As a result, the Korean government asks Kang for help. A secret plan is being implemented, a plan that requires stealing the last six nuclear warheads from North Korea and attempting to set off an explosion in the mines surrounding the volcano, and that’s just the beginning of a ludicrous storyline. 

Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo: The Yellow Sea), a minesweeper, has a few days left on the job and is eager to concentrate his time on his pregnant wife, Choi Ji-young (Bae Suzy: Vagabond). Nevertheless, at the last minute, he accepts the clandestine mission in return for his wife’s safety during the difficult times. While on the way to North Korea, Jo’s team crashes near the country’s border, and before executing the plan, they must free a detained spy, Lee Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun: I Saw the Devil), from a military prison and use him to find the nuclear warheads. But Lee has his own plans and attests himself to be a sneaky and unforeseeable individual. On top of the already complex plan, the U.S Army is on Jo’s case as they want to prevent an atomic explosion that could put their relation with China at risk. 


Photo © CJ Entertainment 

Running through the North Korean wilderness throws Ashfall’s narrative into a tornado pit as Jo tries to catch Lee, and the Americans attempt to capture everyone. It gets so tangled that the storyline loses all sense 30 minutes into the film. Explosions and speeding cars carry the action well, but lack of proper character development makes it hard for the viewer to connect with any of the protagonists. Ashfall lacks the necessary depth that some disaster films have, and with its gaping plot holes and noticeably long running time, watching it is quite a painful experience. 

The ‘relationship’ between Lee and Ha is hard to take au serieux. The same goes for the geopolitics, which have slightly “nationalistic aftertaste” – here, two feuding men from South and North Korea are shaking hands to save the both countries from disaster while running for their lives… Can someone spare the audience from this sort of trajectory? Without a doubt, both actors carry the film on their shoulders, while Ma Dong-seok’s role has been wasted, and knowing the actor’s talent, the professor’s character was truly the wrong choice for him. 


Photo © CJ Entertainment 

It is also not clear which genre Ashfall wants to serve, from disaster film, buddy comedy, action to a drama. The filmmakers desired too many things at once and wasted the film’s potential from the start. Ashfall is an overloaded and bleary-eyed film which would have done better if only there was good content in its narrative, however, it keeps a tally for a good cast and a few random entertaining scenes. 

Rating:  2.5 stars

Written by Maggie Gogler 

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