Thursday, November 05, 2020


Finally! This isn't necessarily a movie that I was waiting for impatiently, but one I was hoping to see earlier on a couple of occasions and it never worked out. I got a publicity email about it which showed that it wasn't going to be booked in Boston near the start of January offering screeners. I emailed back, yes, send me a link, I've reviewed a whole ton of Korean films for EFC and would like to review this one! Nothing. Mid-January, I strongly considered bus-tripping it to NYC to see it, but didn't for some reason or other (some combination of "it's cold", "it's either a long day or an expensive hotel room", "there's something else going on closer to home"). A Hong Kong disc was announced for mid-May, but Hong Kong wasn't shipping stuff to North America at the time. Finally, an American Blu-ray that came out the first week of October but which I finally put in the player last night. Well, not quite "finally", as the Korean place I occasionally order from is showing a release there in a couple of weeks from now. No 3D or 4K versions, though, which is a pity, because this is a movie that could do well with those.

Not that I have any idea whether or not it played in 3D in Korean theaters or not, or even to what extent 3D is/was-as-of-December-2019 a big thing in South Korea any more than it is in the U.S. A year or so ago, a South Korean place was a good bet to find combined 3D/4K releases, but you don't see the 3D ones much any more, so maybe it's not particularly popular there despite what one occasionally reads about other over-the-top exhibition tech showing up on the peninsula. I wonder this, though, because it seems worth noting that both this and Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula both wound up having a lot of car-chase material, and it occurs to me that car chases are the sort of thing that would go great with those theaters that have screens on the left and right sides of the auditorium. You don't need to specifically stage a whole lot of action that only a small percent of the folks going to the movie will see - just stick a couple of small HD/4K cameras on the sides of your rig as you zoom through the desert or city streets - but having scenery whizzing by in one's peripheral vision will probably enhance the visceral impact of that sort of action quite a bit.

Aside from that, I'm considering giving the disc a quick re-insert today to see if it gives you alternate opening credits if you choose to watch in Korean without subtitles, because it was initially kind of odd to see how those titles were entirely in English. I don't particularly think the Korean version would credit one of the actors as "Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee", but then, I suspect figuring out what to do with him when you're advertising is kind of weird, since different parts his American fandom probably know him by different names.

His English being better than most people who play "Korean-American" characters in Korean movies isn't surprising - his family lived in the US for some time - but it's kind of an interesting thing to watch as these movies become more international. I can't tell whether he sounded particularly "American" when speaking Korean, but it might explain why there's occasionally references to his characters being Korean-American when he pops up in other movies, if it's something a Korean audience would notice. This one also had a couple lines about Lee Byun-Hun's character having a southern accent despite playing a North Korean, which amused me some because he actually did sound kind of different from the rest of the cast, and I probably have assumed that this was a North Korean accent without the filmmakers specifically telling me otherwise.

It's a funny coincidence that I put this in right after finishing my post on Minari, because I did kind of find myself idly wondering what South Korean folks think of Steven Yeun in movies like that where he's playing native Koreans, especially since he's the only part of the main cast who doesn't match his character's background. Is it jarring? He could have believably been Korean-American in Okja and his delivery in Burning was meant to sound like he came from nowhere in particular. Maybe he's got a really good Seoul (or wherever) accent in his pocket.

Anyway, if nothing else, this was a pretty enjoyable way to close my laptop, put my phone away, and not continually read about news that would make me nervous all night despite there being nothing I could do, and let's be thankful for that!

Baekdusan (Ashfall)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Ashfall is the sort of movie that looks made for a splashy world-wide release: Slick visual effects, a plot that hits the sweet spot between being of its origin country (and thus not easily remade) but readily accessible to outsiders, and a couple of cast members who are already international stars. The problem: It hit screens in South Korea on the day that The Rise of Skywalker opened in the rest of the world, and between that and Oscar season, screens would be hard to find in areas that don't have large Korean-American communities (it even skipped Boston, where such films tend to do okay). It's good enough to be fun on video, even if its timing wasn't great.

It opens hopefully, with North Korea's impending denuclearization on the news while Captain Cho In-Chong (Ha Jung-woo) and his team defuse a piece of unexploded ordnance from the Korean War; he's due to be decommissioned later that day and looking forward to spending it with his pretty pregnant wife Choi Ji-Young ("Suzy" Bae Su-Ji) before Seoul is hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and the new gets worse: Mount Baekdu on the border of North Korea and China has erupted, devastating Pyongyang and leaving the North in chaos, and is poised to do so three more times in as many days, with the last one likely to devastate the entire peninsula.

Fortunately, Senior Secretary to the President Jun Yoo-Kyung (Jeon Hye-Jin) recalls a paper by visiting Korean-American scientist "Robert" Kong Bong-Rae (Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee) outlining a long-shot technique to vent the magma before it erupts, but which would require at least a 600-megaton explosion. Fortunately, those last six nukes are still somewhere in the DPRK, but their only lead is an informer, Ri Jun-Pyong (Lee Byung-Hun), who will have to be broken out of prison. A hard enough task for seasoned combat soldiers, but one of the two planes carrying the secret mission can't make it through the ash, the whole thing falls on Cho's squad of engineers.

It is a gloriously over-the-top scenario even before you get to the many ways Ri is not to be trusted and how the President (Choi Kwang-Il) recognizes right away that their American allies are not going to be cool with a plan that involves detonating a nuclear bomb on the Chinese border for a 3.5% chance of success (though Kong is working on it!). If nothing else, filmmakers Kim Byung-Seo and Lee Hae-Jun are dedicated to keeping their characters busy enough that the audience doesn't have a lot of time to feel let down after the splashy opening that may also be where most of the effects budget was spent, or because the characters succeeding will mean there's not a whole lot of destruction at the climax. It's one thing after another, and maybe it's not insightful and intricate, but it's exciting and good enough to keep the audience from going "hey, that's stupid" as they move from one action bit to the next

It means none of the impressive cast are doing their most exceptional work, but they're all giving the movie what it needs. Ha Jung-Woo, for instance, gives good "working-class guy stuck trying to save the country" as Cho, easy to get behind and funny without becoming comic relief, a great foil Lee Byung-Hun, whose Ri is intimidating enough to be believable as a dangerous, sophisticated spy but able to look kind of foolish when he and Cho are talking about ordinary things. They're a comedic-style odd couple with enough genuine tension to not make what's going on a joke. Ma Dong-Seok is, as usual, a delight on the side, playing the fussy and kind of cowardly scientist easily despite most of how his parts play into his being a big intimidating guy; there's clearly some sort of backstory about him having rejected his home country that doesn't need to be dragged in despite it making for nice interplay with Jeon Hye-Jin's Jun. Suzy Bae makes for an unusually strong girlfriend-in-danger.

Filmmakers Kim & Lee have a good visual-effects budget to work with and know what to do with it; the budget may not be Emmerich-sized but they know how to get maximum impact from short bursts of FX work and plenty of on-the-ground action. Kim has been the cinematographer for a lot of other glossy/big-budget features, and between them they're good at making chaotic firefights clear and letting the audience get long, wide looks at what's going on before zooming in to the middle of the action. They don't let a lot of fat build up and are good at finding the spot where there are high stakes but the action and adventure are fun - challenging, but not crushing.

It makes for a big, fun disaster movie that has just enough other than destructive spectacle going for it to be a decent at-home watch. It's a shame that more people outside of South Korea didn't get to see it as a giant-screen blockbuster.

Also at eFilmCritic

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