REVIEW: Korean disaster flick Ashfall balances explosive thrills with heartfelt characters

Ha Jung-woo (left) as Cho In-chang and Lee Byung-hun as Ri Jun-pyong in South Korean volcanic disaster movie Ashfall. (PHOTO: Encore Films)

By Lim Yian Lu

Termed as the biggest Korean disaster blockbuster ever, Ashfall brings to the silver screen the eruptions of Baekdu Mountain — not one, not two, but potentially four eruptions in total! Starring Ha Jung-woo as Cho In-chang, captain of the explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) unit (basically people who defuse bombs), he is tasked by South Korea on a mission to prevent the last and most destructive volcanic eruption from happening. However, in order to achieve this, he has to cooperate with the deceitful North Korean elite agent Ri Jun-pyong, portrayed by Lee Byung-hun.

The movie takes on a different and refreshing approach by making the volcanic eruption the antagonist, something that can be “destroyed”. The plan to stop the volcanic eruption stems from the theory developed by a Korean-American seismologist Kang Bong-rae, played by Ma Dong-seok, more commonly known as Don Lee. He has been researching on Baekdu Mountain and preaching on counter-measures against its eruptions, only for his words to fall on deaf ears. Only when disaster struck, was he approached by senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Jun Yoo-kyung, portrayed by Jeon Hye-jin.

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Don Lee plays a scientist who devises a plan to stop an impending catastrophe. (PHOTO: Encore Films)

What is also distinctive is to see the intellectual side of Don Lee, who has acted mostly as a physically strong and masculine character, such as his iconic performance as a tough fighter in Train to Busan and his upcoming role as superhero Gilgamesh in Marvel’s The Eternals. Instead of being out there using brute force to stop the volcanic eruption, Don Lee is seen poring over seismic data and simulation predictions in Ashfall.

While the movie may feel a little long, it has built the characters with depth. In-chang is a father-to-be, anxious to meet up with his pregnant wife Choi Ji-young, played by Bae Suzy, after he completes his supposedly straightforward mission. Jun-pyong, on the other hand, seems like a formidable yet crafty spy but shows his softer and more humane side as the story unfolds. Bong-rae who is sceptical about executing his own theory, feels the responsibility of millions of lives on his shoulders to increase the possibility of success in stopping the volcanic eruption. Yoo-kyung is a decisive individual who would do anything to prevent the eruption, even putting her career on the line.

(From left to right) The clock is ticking for Bae Suzy as Choi Ji-young, Jeon Hye-jin as Jun Yoo-kyung and Don Lee as Kang Bong-rae. (PHOTO: Encore Films)

Ashfall may be a serious movie but occasionally you will be in for some humour, mostly coming from In-chang, who is not exactly capable as a captain and often relies on the relatively more well-trained Jun-pyong. Although the plot is mostly coherent, some parts come about as bizarre or abrupt. One example is Ji-young being thrown off the bridge into the water, yet she is able to present a perfectly dry piece of verification paper afterwards. (Her bag must have been incredibly waterproof!) Another instance is when In-chang and team were escaping from an underground facility, right after they got on the elevator, they were suddenly seen running from the collapsing building.

All in all, Ashfall provides an alternative approach to the genre of natural disaster films, and is quite entertaining for audiences of all ages. With a star-studded cast consisting of Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, Don Lee, Jeon Hye-jin and Bae Suzy, it will be two hours well spent.

Ashfall opens in cinemas on 2 January. The movie is 128 minutes long and rated PG13 for some violence and coarse language.