The title should tell us all we need to know upon the start of this film, yet it’s not fully clear what such “ash” would be from… Sure, we could guess [and especially by the Korean title – more on that later] but instead let’s be surprised.
This said, we are not given long before things really ‘get going’, as they say. In fact, within the first 5 minutes we are in the thick of the events which do unfold and therefore the action.
You see, this film with some big name stars – Ha Jung-woo (who we interviewed previously – link at foot of article) and Lee Byung-hun, to name the two most famous ones – is essentially a disaster movie and as such we all have probably seen enough of these to know what such a build up of early slow screen-time leads to anyway, and what to anticipate.
And as such, and instead, and as alluded to above, we are into things within minutes. However, we are still not sure of what we should be “expecting” until a little later.
In those first few minutes though we do know that someone else is “expecting” (there’s that word again) and that someone is Ha Jung-woo‘s female partner – yes, pregnant!
You could say she’s going to drop a little ‘bomb’, and how apt would that be seeing that Ha’s character could be described as an explosives expert or one related to such things – as always, I want to keep spoilers to a minimum.
The only spoilers I really touched on there are what happens in the first few minutes, because I don’t feel, as well as it’s pulled off, that I’m giving away what REALLY happens… You’d barely have got seated by then anyway.
You see, within these minutes we’ve seen Ha’s vocation, been introduced to his wife and know that something is going to happen very soon.
What follows, and perhaps a warning to us or Ha’s character is a barking dog in a vehicle next to his car, while in slow traffic (and/or it’s simply implying that dog’s have stronger or more sensitive senses), could be said to resemble the filmic work, in certain ways of Mr Steven Spielberg.
Now, I’m not necessarily comparing directors Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo to Spielberg but I do want to point out two, perhaps deliberate parallels.
1. We see a container of water move whilst in a vehicle – “Jurassic Park” anyone?
2. A la Speilberg’s remake or retelling of “War Of The Worlds”, things in the distance and on a road start pinging up all over the place.
On the subject of those moments in WOTW there is also such a moment where the road is split as if an alien had got down in there!
Back on with the story though.
Something is certainly awry on the Korean Peninsula and this is first, or almost simultaneously with other happenings, told via a TV news reporter broadcasting from elsewhere in Korea.
What ultimately ensues after these 4, 5 or 6 minutes – yep, that soon! – is that our actor, Mr Ha drives manically to get out of the area and the forthcoming madness… that’s all I’ll call it at this stage.
In doing so, there is an almost laughable but clever moment where a car is seen driving on the top of a lorry – or a “truck” for any USA peeps reading this.
Crazy moments we see here.
Back to the “Ash” of the title. Is it from a fire? Perhaps from burnt bodies? [There’s MMM’s “War of the Worlds” referencing again!] Or… Is it ash coming from something else?
The ash that plays into this story is indeed from something else, although you could say it’s also linked to fire, and one could even say from dead, burnt bodies too.
Seeing as the trailer gives away a little of what I may class as spoilers [and I understand why they do – and indeed many would not call such things as spoilers] I’ll elaborate further.
The ash in question relates to a mountain and if you’ve got access to Google or Google Maps or simply know your stuff you will know that this place is pretty much on the border of North Korea and China. The name? Baekdu Mountain (or Paektu Mountain / 백두산 – and the Korean title of the film!)
I’m not though, going to go into questions or details relating to why this mountain, volcano or ash-producing natural monolith might affect Korea and not China. That is not to say that such detail doesn’t come up in the film itself – you’ll have to watch it to see. However, and as you may have read or seen glimpses of in the trailer, or indeed from the synopsis on the London Korean Film Festival site, North Korea is involved too.
Many South Korea films have had stories which also concern North Korea. After all, the peninsula is simply KOREA, and many of us wish there was never a divide… None more so than many Koreans, obviously. Although of late, with the success of TV shows too – I’m thinking “Crash Landing On You” (Netflix) – perhaps it’s going to happen in films even more.
Either way, despite questions which may be raised as to how likely such a situation or ‘disaster’ would or could ever happen, we should remember this is fiction and no matter how good or preposterous a story may be, and no matter how many times a similar set-up or genre has been done or repeated it is still fiction. Yes, there’s a little gripe in there.
I do have another gripe or two, but I’ll save that for later!
So, who better for this Fiction Feature Film to play roles not only in a dramatic way but a comedic way at times? Well, those I mentioned at the start mainly – Ha Jung-woo and Lee Byung-hun! This is not to say the actresses (Jeon Hye-jin and Bae Suzy) don’t do a good job… They do. And so does Mr Ma Dong-seok, and even too having a few humorous lines himself.
But let’s stick with the two giants of Korean cinema – Mr Ha and Mr Lee.
It’s Mr Ha’s character who – long story short and spoiler free – is involved with finding Mr Lee’s. Firstly, if I were Ha Jung-woo searching and then found the version of Lee Byung-hun that we ultimately find, I would be in two minds as to whether it’s actually him or not. You see, he’s almost [or semi] unrecognisable… perhaps more disguised, be it by facial hair or otherwise, than in any role before (?)…!
When these two meet, face or confront each other, is when the comedy moments I touched on earlier really happen. They are well timed and not overdone. One or two moments did make me chuckle and I’m someone who may sometimes find it hard to sit through such a disaster style film.
Their camaraderie or on-off friendliness works quite well despite the plot and perhaps preposterous circumstances they are dealing with or put into.
As I say, I don’t want to go into the plot itself – partly out of not wanting to spoil the fun or journey for you, and partly because it felt quite convoluted, yet straightforward also at times – but I do want to talk about something which is present in this film, and no more so than in such scenes when we have both Mr Ha and Mr Lee in our company.
If anyone here ever read my review of The Villainess, you may know where I’m going to go with these next few lines. [if not, here’s a link to that article and podcast:]
Now, I know this is a film in which there is the military, some kind of [let’s say] gangsters and it’s a pretty gung-ho kind of film in many places, but do we really need so much fire-power [ash pun perhaps intended? maybe!]…?!
Should I instead say GUN-ho? Well, maybe. My thoughts are this… Firstly, when did South Korean films start to have so much gunfire or indeed the threat of gun use, or simply in include them in scene after scene? I’m not sure, but such films do seem to be on the increase.
I know that Hollywood does it and a hell of a lot of people DO LIKE films with shooting / killing in them but I do feel it’s doing more harm [not the firearms, but the films themselves] than good. Perhaps I can justify stories / films with police having the odd gun and needing to use it but lately they seem to be popping up everywhere. Sure, they only usual pop up in certain genres but I also feel [in Hollywood or World Cinema too] that they can be a bit of a cop-out…! [unintended ‘police’ word included there!] And… wouldn’t the old fashion knives be enough? Obviously, depending on the type of film, characters and genre. It does seem to reflect the USA’s awful obsession with the pistol. Come on Korea, you’re better than that!
That’s that, gripe number 1. Gripe no. 2 is similar but regarding the American military who do pop up in this film. Even at one point I was thinking “please don’t have the ‘Americans save the day’ kind of ending”… and why were these thoughts crossing my mind? Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint as my mind works in mysterious ways and even more so when I’m not happy with something I see on screen. Perhaps it was when such US troops appear, all suited in army wear, helmets etc, straight faces (& stern talk) and, of course guns.
And up until this point I thought we were only going to see the US soldiers briefly, especially as early on in the film a TV news channel or programme is announcing those who are being evacuated or the first to leave… and guess what, it’s the US military. I do have other reasons for these last US related gripes but it gets a bit political and it is also related to little old Korea.
Back to the film itself and all that fluffy stuff.
The effects are pretty good in this film although these days nothing really surprises myself and I’m sure others. I’m sure quite a bit of work goes into it but such effects and graphics are almost part of the norm for this kind of film and budget. The sound design is OK, or as expected and aptly over-the-top at times.
I will also add that in addition to it all getting started within those very first few minutes, and rather rapidly, the film is over two hours long and although that’s not long these days it does mean that a lot gets packed in to it. Sure, some of it is silly but I wouldn’t say boring. It keeps you occupied or entertained!
What with the sequel to “Train To Busan” doing the rounds currently it will appeal to fans of that mini franchise as well as others, but one thing which you could say it at least has in common with that sequel is regarding its name – the TTB sequel is “Peninsula”, and “Ashfall” & its story does indeed relate to the whole peninsula. Oh and they both are one-word film titles and that often indicates a certain kind of genre or type of film, and you could say, type of demographic too.
All in all, it’s not breaking any new ground [p’unintended] but it will appeal to many, I’m sure.
With such a crazy plot and perhaps twists & turns it’s possible to take the story anywhere the filmmakers wanted to and they certainly do cram a lot in. Of course, it also does what quite a few Korean films do and give to their stories or feel – and indeed Korean audiences – and that’s a feeling or show of patriotism, whilst an almost uniting of the Koreas… even if there is almost ‘impending doom’ on the horizon.
One last thing…
It’s not totally clear, although there are hints, whether this is set in the present or future. The one item of the plot which indicated to me it may be the NEAR future is that North Korea are abandoning or getting rid of their nuclear weapons. Of course, I may have missed parts due to being uninterested at times. I may ‘have to’ view it again.
I’d say, go in with whatever expectations you like and I’m sure you’ll come away happy, overall. Perhaps the world needs a little escapism right now, even if it’s a film with a threat of DISASTER!
On the flip side of things, one could argue that this film is signalling what nature can do. Perhaps when we are devastating parts of the world and it’s creatures, this is what we get – be it a direct result or simply “nature’s revenge” [oh no, that sounds like an invitation for a poorly titled sequel!…]
I’ll stop there and simply leave you with one particular subtitled line from the trailer, “You really believe that this absurd plan will work out?” – This may appeal to you and/or give you a clue to the film’s feel.
MMM’s interview with Ha Jung-woo [from a few years ago] can be read here:
“Ashfall” can be seen at the Genesis Cinema, for one night only and as part of the LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2020. Please note that due to the second and so-called ‘lockdown’ the original screening date was moved – it has now been re-scheduled for the 6th December – and further details under the website’s “Programme News” section.
A selection of other Korean films can be seen cinemas or viewed online as part of the festival.
Booking details at KoreanFilm.co.uk and more details of other screenings, free films and full schedule here in MMM’s special article – The official festival end date was 12th November 2020 (but certain rescheduled screenings after that).