Um Cheol-woo, a highly trained, lethal operative in the North Korean army, is given an unusual order one day by his superior, General Ri. He is asked to come out of early retirement and travel to an economic zone in Kaesong, a city just over the border from the South, to assassinate two men who pose a grave threat to national security. Um goes as instructed, but an unexpected scene greets him in Kaesong. North Korean soldiers plotting a coup have managed to hack into a highly sophisticated U.S. rocket launcher, and they fire its payload (nicknamed “Steel Rain” for the devastating shrapnel it spreads) directly at Kaesong’s center. As it happens, the North Korean leader (referred to in the film as “No. 1”) is visiting the city that day. But despite causing widespread destruction, the coup plotters’ attempts to kill No. 1 are thwarted by Um, and in the resulting confusion Um manages to cross into South Korea.
Steel Rain is a complicated film, but the turns of its plot (both plausible and far-fetched) are more fun to discover on your own, so I won’t reveal too much here. Suffice it to say, amidst the state of emergency that spreads across the Korean peninsula, Um Cheol-woo ends up in Seoul with the key to preventing nuclear war. But there are few places he can turn to for help. Eventually he forms an uneasy partnership with Kwak Cheol-woo, a South Korean security secretary with whom he happens to share a given name. If Um gets by with reflexes and combat skills, Kwak’s strengths are of a different sort: his ability to remain calm in a crisis, his analytical mind, and his communication skills. But much depends on the two men’s ability to work together, despite cultural differences and decades of accumulated mistrust.
Director Yang Woo-suk’s debut film The Attorney (2013), although a runaway smash hit, was nonetheless short on spectacle – the film relied on accomplished acting, subtle drama and appeals to idealism to create its impact. Steel Rain however is much more of a traditional blockbuster, with well-choreographed action set pieces spread across its running time, and references to the current geopolitical situation that feel frighteningly relevant. Released in December 2017, at a time when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea had reached fever pitch, this work which at other times might have come across as paranoid or exaggerated instead seemed nothing of the sort. It’s not clear whether the final box-office tally of 4.5 million admissions was boosted or depressed by real-life threats of war and boasts about “nuclear buttons”.
One of this film’s strengths is its great ensemble cast, with even some of the smallest appearances leaving a lasting impression. But the two men at the top deserve special notice. Kwak Do-won, best known for his leading performance in The Wailing (2016), is down-to-earth and nuanced in this role, suggesting someone worn down but not burnt out by his time serving in the top circles of government. Kwak is an actor who can come across as highly likeable or highly unlikeable depending on the role, but here for most of the film he remains somewhere in the middle. Jung Woo-sung, meanwhile, was known in the 1990s as just a pretty face, but his career continues to thrive in his mid-40s, even as many of his contemporaries have faded from view. (Not to imply that he’s still not good-looking...) The role of Um sees him as a legitimate action hero, but one who is scared about the fate of his country, and confused in unfamiliar surroundings. Jung captures these conflicting emotions in one of his best performances to date.
A graduate of the philosophy department at Korea University, Yang Woo-seok began his career working in various industry jobs. But he was also active as an author of web comics, drafting the story for the original comic on which Steel Rain is based. Yang eventually made his directorial debut in 2013, at the late age of 44. Nonetheless it was quite a debut: with The Attorney (a FEFF award winner), he became the first director in Korean film history to sell more than 10 million tickets with his first feature. His second feature Steel Rain also enjoyed box office success, accumulating 4.5 million admissions.