t.l. Caduta ceneri
백두산 (Baekdu-san)

South Korea, 2019, 128’, Korean
Directed by: Kim Byung-seo, Lee Hae-jun 
Script: Kwak Jeong-deok, Im Jun-hyeong, Kim Tae-yun, Lee Hae-jun, Kim Byung-seo
Photography (color): Kim Ji-yong
Editing: Kim Hye-jin, Kim Jin-oh
Art Direction: Choi Seul-ki
Music: Bang Jun-seok
Producers: Kim Yong-hwa, Kim Jae-ho, Park Ji-sung, Choi Ji-seon
Cast: Lee Byung-hun (Ri Jun-pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-chang), Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee (Professor Kang Bong-rae), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-kyung), Bae Suzy (Ji-young)

Date of First Release in Territory: December 19th, 2019
Premiere status: International Festival Premiere 

Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo’s clever Ashfall begins as a quintessential example of disaster movie, with co-star Jo In-chang (Ha Jung-woo) on the run as the skyscrapers of Seoul collapse like castles of cards. While the TV screens triumphantly declare the North Korea denuclearisation agreement, which will deliver its ballistic missiles to the Americans, a huge earthquake brings South Korea to its knees and destroys North Korea. But there is worse: Mount Paekdu, on the border between Korea and China, is about to erupt again, triggering a super-quake that will destroy half the peninsula.

Professor Kang Bong-rae (Ma Dong-seok) – the Cassandra-turned-deus ex machina which is typical of this kind of film – proposes a bold plan: to reduce the pressure of the volcano’s magmatic chamber with an atomic explosion. In order to do this, the atomic warheads of six North Korean missiles must be seized before the Americans take them. And first of all, a captured North Korean spy who was passing information to the South, Ri Jun-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun, also present at the FEFF in The Man Standing Next), must be liberated from a prison in North Korea, to act as guide to the missile site.

A task force is set up with Jo as chief bomb squad leader but due to plot twists, he finds himself as mission leader in devastated North Korea. The film doesn’t hold back from a touch of schadenfreude with a wink, showing statues and portraits of the Kim family on the ground, thrown down by the cataclysm (but it is also quite unforgiving towards the cumbersome American ally). Ri is rescued, but, as could be expected, he has an agenda of his own, aimed at finding his daughter (played by 11-year-old Kim Si-ah, who we will also see in Udine in The House of Us and The Closet). Not to mention that our heroes aren’t the only parties playing the game... Meanwhile Ji-young (Bae Suzy), Jo’s pregnant wife, tries to reach the evacuation point where she’s supposed to meet her husband, who didn’t dare tell her about his mission.

Undoubtedly spectacular, Ashfall keeps the audiences glued to the screen with a steady, lively pace, despite some twisted narrative developments. In the frame of the disaster movie, the film delivers dashes of war action, family melodrama, a bit of comedy with Jo and his untrained bomb squad (Ri’s sharp-tongued sarcasm hits the spot), plus, above all, the classic buddy movie about two friends/enemies on the same mission, with big fallouts before inevitably making up again. In this field Korean cinema has something to add to the usual array of clashes between white and black, or machos and women, or veterans and rookies, exploiting the dog-cat relationship between South and North Korea (as previously seen in Kim Sung-boon’s Confidential Assignment, presented at FEFF 2017). Well played by Ha Jung-woo and Lee Byung-hun, the two leads make up an amusing “Korean self-portrait” (as seen from the South), with the Southerner decided, sensitive and droll, the Northerner gloomy, sad and determined.

Alongside the couple, singer and actress Bae Suzy lends some solid personality to Ji-young’s character – far from the usual damsel in distress. Jeon Hye-jin is a joy to behold as Ms. Jeon, the South Korean President’s tough Senior Secretary, who is also ready to act like a spy in the American Embassy. Ma Dong-seok, who after numerous supporting roles attained star status with the very human Train to Busan character, confirmed his popularity with good-hearted tough-guy and memorable puncher parts (The Outlaws, FEFF 2018, Unstoppable, FEFF 2019) – with the risk of being typecast. Ashfall offers him a different role, again with a touch of humour, as Professor Kang, who wants to go to the USA, has just become an American citizen and calls himself Robert (note that Ma Dong-seok, a.k.a. Don Lee, has American citizenship), pretending with Ji-young that he doesn’t speak Korean. A fine overall cast is central to the film’s success in maintaining the interplay of human relations hand in hand with the picture of the disaster, entrusted to special effects.

Kim Byung-seo is a well-known cinematographer (, 2003, Castaway on the Moon, 2009, Dangerous Liaisons, 2012, the Along with the Gods films and others). In 2013 he co-directed (with Cho Ui-seok) the film Cold Eyes, a remake of the 2007 Hong Kong film Eye in the Sky. 

2013 – Cold Eyes
2019 – Ashfall

Lee Hae-jun began his career as a screenwriter, teaming up with classmate Lee Hae-young to write the scripts for Jo Geun-shik’s comedy Conduct Zero (2002) and other works. Their directorial debut, Like a Virgin (2006), was a critical success. Lee Hae-jun’s first solo feature as director was Castaway on the Moon (2009), Audience Award at the 12th FEFF. His follow-up My Dictator is about an actor trained by intelligence agents to play North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. 

2006 – Like a Virgin
2009 – Castaway on the Moon
2014 – My Dictator
2019 – Ashfall
Giorgio Placereani
Film director: Kim Byung-seo, Lee Hae-jun
Year: 2019
Running time: 128'
Country: South Korea
26/06 - 8:45 PM
Far East Film Festival Online
26-06-2020 20.45 26-06-2020 22:53Europe/Rome Ashfall Far East Film Festival Far East Film Festival OnlineCEC Udine
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