×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Steel Rain’

This espionage action-thriller that milks North-South Korean tensions for all its worth.

Director:
Yang Woo-seok
With:
Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won, Kim Kap-soo, Park Eun-hee, Kim Ji-ho, Kim Eui-sung, Lee Kyung-young, Jo Woo-jin, Kristen Dalton, Ron Donachie. (Korean, English, Mandarin dialogue)

2 hours 19 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6769508/

Imagining a doomsday’s crisis with gleeful paranoia, “Steel Rain” unites a hyper-skilled North Korean operative with a nerdy presidential aide to stop a nuclear war. Adapting his own webtoon, South Korean writer-director Yang Woo-seok (“The Attorney”) whips up the sort of worst-case-scenario, anti-Communist hysteria that’s a hilarious throwback to the Cold War propaganda of 1970s cloak-and-dagger movies. Chock full of wham-bang action and flashy effects, it’s a thrill ride that benefits from the odd-couple dynamics of lead actors Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won. With American and North Korean heads of state so recently boasting about the size of their “nuclear buttons,” the film gains topicality prior to its Netflix release.

Yang’s script thinks the unthinkable by conjuring a fictional coup against the Hermit Kingdom’s Supreme Leader, referred to as Number One throughout the film. Um Cheol-woo (Jung), a top agent in the North Korean army, follows orders of General Lee Tae-han (Kim Kap-soo) to assassinate two men who threaten state security. He arrives in Kaesong, a new economic zone serving Chinese businessmen, and witnesses an explosion. While most spy thrillers content themselves with a few military skirmishes, Yang gives us a full-blown missile altercation that shows this is a war film that means business.

What Um wasn’t briefed about is that Number One was on site officiating a ceremony, and he’s critically injured. With the help of two teenage cheerleaders, Um puts him in the back of his van and heads down to Seoul, the nearest place where they could get medical help. Although his face is never shown, the mere thought of his life hanging in the balance should be titillating enough for Korean audiences. They break into the clinic of a gynecologist (Park Eun-hye) who doesn’t feel confident enough to perform neurosurgery, so she fobs them off on her best friend (Kim Ji-ho), a plastic surgeon who happens to be the ex-wife of Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak), secretary of national security at the Blue House (presidential office).

Then follows several scenes inside the Blue House, where South Korean leaders hold tense conference calls with a trigger-happy POTUS. Though irony may not be intended, these scenes do recall “Dr. Strangelove” in their surreal inhumanity. As in Kubrick’s political satire, the movie goes wild imagining a nuclear bust-up between the U.S., China, Japan, and the divided Korean peninsula. The ending delivers a smashing payoff, not through typical Korean CG-overkill, but with old-fashioned man-to-man fights choreographed by Choi Bong-rok and an eerie spectacle set in underground tunnels.

The film also revels in the most brazenly patronizing attitudes to North Koreans, mocking their backwardness by playing up the contrast between Um’s Stone Age walkie-talkie phone and Kwak’s ultra-slick smartphone. Their deprivation is keenly felt as the two cheerleaders’ marvel at cup noodle and instant rice, and later epitomized by Kwak asking Um if he’s ever tasted a hamburger, or “that meat-in-bread thing.” In the most fulsome assertion of South Korean soft power, Um and Kwak bond over the hip-hop music of idol G-Dragon, touting the cheesy message of “make K-pop, not war.”

Amid all the capitalist jingoism, Jung and Kwak manage to forge a convincing rapport that doesn’t just rehash the North-South “frenemy” relations seen in numerous Korean espionage films (from Jang Hoon’s “Secret Reunion” to Ryoo Seung-wan’s “The Berlin File”). This is partly due to the humanized portrayal of Kwak, who is nothing like the standard hot-shot patriotic agent. Recalling the actor’s role as the laid-back, befuddled cop in “The Wailing,” Kwak is instantly likeable as a meek paper-pusher beholden to layers of hierarchy at work, scorned as a loser by his ex-wife and struggling vainly to impress his spoiled brats.

His calm demenator and cognitive smarts to diffuse crises offers a modern prototype of heroism as a foil for the traditional man-of-steel stoicism of his Communist counterpart, implying that the former is the more viable approach in global politics. The process by which the two agents build their wary trust unfolds in a nuanced way, as when Kwak undoes Um’s handcuffs to let him gorge on noodles. Even their shared names, which initially sound overtly symbolic of the brotherhood between North and South, become rather touching as their divergent fates pan out.

Editing by Lee Gang-hee is brisk in both the action and quieter drama scenes, while effects at the high end of Korean standards deliver some impressive renderings of nuclear weapons and bombastic pyrotechnics. Shootouts and physical combat are also kinetically choreographed, making Um’s moves appear especially lethal. 

Film Review: 'Steel Rain'

Reviewed online, Hong Kong, Jan. 10, 2018. Running time: 139 MIN. (Original title: “Gang Cheol Pi”)

Production: (S. Korea) A Yworks Entertainment production. (International sales: Contents Panda, Seoul.) Producer: Sun Young. Executive producers: Sun Young, Kim Woo-taek. Co-producers: Park Min-hee, Kim Tae-won, Park Jun-ho.

Crew: Director, writer: Yang Woo-seok. Camera (color, widescreen): Lee Hyung-deok. Editor: Lee Gang-hee. Music: Kim Tae-seong.

With: Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won, Kim Kap-soo, Park Eun-hee, Kim Ji-ho, Kim Eui-sung, Lee Kyung-young, Jo Woo-jin, Kristen Dalton, Ron Donachie. (Korean, English, Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Valerian

    EuropaCorp in Advanced Talks to Sell Off Its Post-Production Facility (EXCLUSIVE)

    Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp is in advanced discussions to sell its vast post-production facility, Digital Factory, to Chinese research and engineering studio Southbay, Variety has learned. Southbay specializes in 3D conversion, VFX and post-production for film and TV, and has offices in Los Angeles and in Hangzhou and Shaoxing in China. EuropaCorp is one of Southbay’s clients, along [...]

  • 'Self-Portrait With Boy' in Development at

    'Self-Portrait With Boy' in Development at Topic Studios

    Topic Studios (“Leave No Trace”) has bought rights to Rachel Lyon’s debut novel “Self-Portrait With Boy” and plans to develop the project as a feature film. Lyon will adapt her own novel. John Lyons (“Boogie Nights”), who recently signed a first-look deal with Topic Studios, has come on board to produce. More Reviews Film Review: [...]

  • Ventana Sur Animation Panel Focuses On

    Ricardo Cortes Vera Talks Audience-Driven Content at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Ricardo Cortes Vera, commissioning editor for Señal Colombia, introduced the audience-driven children’s content his company is renowned for in hopes of encouraging a crowd of animators into submitting their own work to the channel. He did so in a keynote address given Tuesday afternoon in Buenos Aires, at the Animation! strand [...]

  • Films by Francois Ozon, Fatih Akin

    Berlin Film Festival: New Films by Francois Ozon, Fatih Akin, Denis Cote in Competition

    New films by Francois Ozon, Fatih Akin and Denis Cote are among the titles that will compete for the Golden Bear at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. German director Akin’s “Der Goldene Handschuh” (“The Golden Glove”) and French helmer Ozon’s “Grâce à dieu” (“By the Grace of God”) were announced by the Berlinale in its [...]

  • Picture Tree Sells Berlin Competition Film

    Picture Tree Sells Berlin Competition Title 'The Ground Beneath My Feet'

    Picture Tree Intl. is on board as the sales agent for “The Ground Beneath My Feet” (Der Boden Unter Den Füssen), which the Berlin Film Festival revealed Thursday will be in its main competition section. The Austrian drama, directed by Marie Kreutzer, stars Valerie Pachner, Mavie Hörbiger and Pia Hierzegger. The film centers on high-powered [...]

  • Katherine Jerkovic on FiGa Films-Sold Debut

    Ventana Sur: Katherine Jerkovic On Personal References, Icebergs, and Whispered Truths

    Canada-born with roots in Uruguay, Croatia and Argentina, Katherine Jerkovic split her childhood between Belgium and Uruguay. At 18, she settled in Montreal and studied film at Concordia University. After a few shorts (“The Winter’s Keeper”) and some video-installations, she has finished her first feature, “Roads in February.” The film is a co-production between Nicolas [...]

  • 1844 Ent, Distrib Films To Release

    1844 Ent. Acquires North America on Alejandro Fadel’s ‘Murder Me, Monster’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — 1844 Entertainment, an emerging player on the U.S. distribution scene, has acquired North American rights to Argentine writer-director Alejandro Fadel’s “Muere monstruo muere” (“Murder Me, Monster”), sold by The Match Factory.      The deal was negotiated by 1844 Entertainment’s Tommaso Cerqueglini, The Match Factory’s Michael Weber and Thania Dimitrakopoulou.   As [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content