Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-kwon reunite in director Yang Woo-suk's button-pushing thriller.
The first of a trio of major end-of-year releases in Korea this winter, Steel Rain is the third North Korea-themed action-thriller of 2017 (following Confidential Assignment and V.I.P.) and easily its most bombastic. From The Attorney helmer Yang Woo-suk, who adapts his own webtoon of the same name, the threat of nuclear armageddon on the Korean peninsula has never been so great in a film that is as ambitious as it is disjointed. Leads Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-kwon reunite just over a year after Asura: The City of Madness.
A rogue North Korean agent witnesses the beginning of a coup and shelters the country's leader when he falls into a coma. He escapes with the injured head of state to South Korea, where intelligence officers are scrambling to deal with the turmoil across the border. By chance, the agent runs into a foreign affairs chief and together they try to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear conflict between both nations, as agents and diplomats from the US and Japan also try to influence Korea's response.
As always, tensions are rife on the peninsula, but more so than usual, citizens have considered what a conflict might look like, not because North Korea has been any more belligerent than usual, but because a new world leader in the West appears even more bellicose and unpredictable. For whatever reason, the threat of all-out war has crossed people's minds and thus Steel Rain arrives at an opportune time.
Using a hypothetical coup d'etat, the film guides us into a complex diplomatic situation that doesn't seem altogether far-fetched. Yet while the scenario is presented in sounder fashion than something like the risible Hanbando, Yang has trouble positioning a broad escalation of geopolitical tensions within a narrative that is led by two protagonists, whose over-sized influence in the clash is as unlikely as the manner in which they meet, when the agent takes a doctor hostage to care for his unconscious charge and her ex-husband happens to be a man with a seat in the president's situation room.
Yet, not content with its diplomatic tussles, Steel Rain is also a sweeping action film. No doubt influenced by Yang's webcomic original, several scenes of espionage have a distinct comic book flair, while bigger set pieces build to (mostly) satisfying crescendos. In the first one, several high-ranking North Koreans get taken down across several locations, Godfather-style. As these short scenes stack on top of one another while other strands are parallel-edited, Yang's pacing begins to emulate the focal points of Christopher Nolan's blockbusters, but it's the blaring horns and tick-tocking strings that makes this build-up a dead ringer for this summer's Dunkirk. Admittedly, it's effective, but the Hans Zimmer-esque score is very much on the wrong side of the 'inspired by'-'lifted from' divide.
No stranger to action fare (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, The Divine Move), Jung Woo-sung handles himself in the film's physical scenes, throwing himself into close quarters combat and dashing down halls, through doors and around corners with gusto. He's also pairs up again well with Kwak and the two seem to share a rapport, but left on his own in few dramatic scenes, he runs out of steam, which may partly be a result of his slightly awkward North Korean accent.
Kwak Do-won hit the big time four years ago when he memorably sparred in the courtroom with Song Kang-ho in Yang's debut but this time around he's tasked with playing the average joe as the schlubby office worker (with very high government clearance) to Jung's North Korean studly field operative. Though a far cry from his excellent countryside detective in Na Hong-jin's The Wailing, Kwak is relatable and comfortable in the role, with the glaring exception of his English-language exchanges with a CIA agent. His character is supposed to be fluent to the point that he can trade philosophical musings but Kwak's command of English is so poor that I had to read the Korean subtitles to understand what he was saying.
Unsurprisingly, women are seldom seen in Steel Rain. Jung Woo-sung helps a few while holding others hostage for a couple of scenes and a CIA agent has to pretend to understand Kwak's dialogue but beyond that they are most prominently featured when a large group of them are shredded to pieces by shrapnel in a fetishistically slowed-down tableau. Though nowhere near as problematic as V.I.P. was a few months ago, it's sad that Korean filmmakers seem to find it impossible to give women interesting roles in blockbusters.
Steel Rain won't find the same broad audience as megahit The Attorney, but for the right viewer Yang's latest pushes all the right buttons and even the rest of the audience should find at least a few elements to keep them in their seats. In any case, the North Korea thriller genre will be just as visible next year, with at least another trio of blockbusters heading to screens.