Ashfall (2019)

Rating: B-

Dir: Lee Hae-jun, Byung-seo Kim
Star: Lee Byung-hun, Ha Jung-woo, Ma Dong-seok, Bae Suzy
a.k.a. Baekdusan 

I like seeing what different countries bring to the genre of disaster porn. As well as Hollywood, we’ve watched entries from Scandinavia, Britain, Russia and China, and they’ve all had their little bits of national flavour to them. Now, we get to add South Korea to the list, and unsurprisingly, the division of the nation from its enigmatic Northern sibling plays a significant part. The source of the problem is Baekdu, a mountain on the North Korea-Chinese border, and a real thing. Its eruption in 946 was one of the most violent on Earth in the last five millennia, and it’s expected to erupt about every hundred years. Except, the last time it did so was 1903, so is well overdue.

Its initial eruption here causes massive damage by triggering huge earthquakes along the entire peninsula. The problem is, an even larger tank of magma lurks below, and if it blows, the consequences will be catastrophic. Scientist Kang Bong-rae (Ma) comes up with a plan: punch a hole in the side of the tank with a nuclear bomb from a nearby mine, releasing the pressure. Problem #1. South Korea has no nukes. Solution: take some from the North, which is currently in chaos. To this end, a team is sent across the border, but is forced down by ash. It’s up to inexperienced bomb-disposal officer Jo In-chang (Ha) and possible spy Lee Joon-pyeong (Lee) to steal the nuclear warheads and complete the mission before the tank blows.

This definitely hits all the story beats you’ve come to expect. A scientist people are reluctant to take seriously; a pregnant wife (Bae), struggling to escape the chaos, while her husband stares repeatedly at a sonogram of their unborn child; heroic sacrifice. Yet there’s enough different in the execution to keep thing on the “fresh” side of the delicatessen aisle. For example, the way the Americans are the bad guys, insisting with force that the South shut down their effort to “acquire” the North’s nuclear capability, or the relationship between Jo and Lee. While the latter follows the usual trajectory from adversarial to bromance, the differences in the men’s respective backgrounds means it remains interesting throughout. 

The effects are genuinely impressive for the most part, though a little too front-loaded. Indeed, it may even peak (Dante’s Peak, probably…) inside the first ten minutes, with some impressive escalation from an earthquake on TV, to one in the streets, to skyscrapers toppling. Thereafter, we get a nice tidal wave after a dam breaks, and some generally well-executed blasted landscapes. But having teased the massive tank of magma for much of the movie, it’s a shame we never get to see what that might have entailed. It is fairly obvious, once a certain incident happens, how things are going to turn out, and the film doesn’t surprise. However, this was 128 minutes which felt considerably less, and that’s more than I can say for most recent Hollywood efforts in this field.