The line up for the London Korean Film Festival is an impressive one, with a broad range of genres designed to appeal to people who are fans of very different films. One that immediately jumped out from the list was Ashfall, a big, bombastic action adventure blockbuster that looked like a load of fun.
Ashfall (original title Baekdusan) follows bomb disposal technician Jo In-Chang (Jung-woo Ha), who’s planning to retire from his dangerous job to spend more time with his wife and their baby, who’s close to being born. However, when Mount Paektu, an active volcano on the North Korea/China border suddenly erupts, his plans are cancelled.
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The eruption causes extensive damage across the Korean Peninsula, destroying cities in North and South Korea. When it’s discovered that this is only the first of four eruptions, and that the final one is going to be large enough to cause massive devastation and loss of life, the Korean government must come up with a plan to prevent this.
Jo In-Chang and his team get dispatched to travel into North Korea, contact double agent Ri Joon-pyeong (Byung-hun Lee) who’s in one of their detention centres, and discover the location of North Korean nuclear weapons. They will then have to steal one of these weapons in order to detonate it beneath the mountain, providing enough pressure relief to prevent the final eruption.
This plan sees Jo and his team travelling into hostile territory, that puts them against both the North Korean forces, and those of the USA who have travelled to Korea to take part in nuclear disarmament procedures. But when things go wrong, Jo and his technicians, who are not trained for combat, must complete the mission, alongside a double agent intent on escaping and screwing over the team if it means his freedom.
Ashfall opens big, with the first eruption of Mount Paektu within the first ten minutes causing massive damage across Seoul. Buildings come crashing down, cars crash, and Jo is left dashing through the destruction as carnage and ash rain around him.
From here the film hardly lets up, and uses the constant threat of follow-up destruction to keep the cast of characters moving forward at all times, fighting towards their end goal. However, it doesn’t just rely on the threat of geological disaster, but throws a lot of action, espionage, buddy comedy, and even some surprisingly emotional moments into the mix too, meaning that the audience never has a chance to get bored with events.
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The film really picks up when Jo and his team encounter Ri, who doesn’t seem to care about anything but his own personal goals throughout. He’s constantly at odds with Jo and his team, and this means that you’re never sure which side he’s going to be on at any moment. The interplay between Jo and Ri is great, and keeps the audience guessing right up to the end; an end that manages to hit a perfect note.
These constant shifts in tone, jumping from action and espionage to silly moments where the two leads are battling against each other and trying to get the upper hand, mean that Ashfall never feels dull or takes itself too seriously. This helps to balance out against some of the stark and realistic depictions of destruction, and the massive stakes that Jo has on his shoulders.
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Ashfall is the kind of film audiences often get from big budget American studios, where it would be the US Army riding in to do the impossible and save the day, so it’s refreshing to see that formula subverted a little, where not only is it another country that gets to play at big budget heroics but the US military is an active antagonist.
Overall Ashfall is a really enjoyable film. It has some great pacing, big action and disaster sequences that work really well, and a central cast who are a genuine delight to watch. Definitely a film that I would recommend.
The London Korean Film Festival 2020 runs from 29th October – 12th November with cinema screenings in London and online screenings available to audiences across the UK. For further information and tickets: koreanfilm.co.uk