“Steel Rain” – 2018 Udine Far East Film Festival Review

With the issues of peace and denuclearisation still palpable hot potatoes in both the global arena and the Korean peninsula, it comes as no big surprise that the surrounding anxieties should prove a fertile ground for creative invocations of a united Korea. In “Steel Rain” (강철비), an adaptation of director Yang Woo-suk’s own eponymous web comic, this manifests as an almost pre-apocalyptic buddy cop thriller, with North-South camaraderie saving the day in an obvious paean to Korean fraternity and a reunified state.

After a coup in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leaves the North Korean Supreme Leader in a state of mortal peril, rogue agent Uhm Cheol-woo (Jung Woo-sung) departs for the South with the supine dictator in tow, while the rest of the world watches the possibility of a nuclear war go from zero to a palpable red alert of worldwide chaos. In the meantime, the similarly named South Korean agent Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak Do-won) faces a domestic crisis of his own: pressures come in from above in the face of the impending takeover by a newly elected president. When these two meet amidst international uproar as regional powers scramble to scuttle the country, they have to negotiate assassination attempts by the North Korean military, K-Pop music, and their own differences to save the world, as protagonists of such movies are wont to do.

Kudos must be given to Yang for his depiction of a North Korea that defies the farcical and kitschy treatment that the state commonly receives in international media.  Here they are lean and mean, with the agile, graceful brutality of big cats on the prowl. A palpable sense of menace permeates the film whenever they are onscreen, and where danger is concerned, they are efficient and deadly, reminiscent of Russian agents in Cold War spy movies.

Notable are the action sequences, which are sleek and of Hollywood quality: the tactility of each fight is obvious and textured, coloured by the combat pragmatism one expects of a fight for survival—when the brawl takes place in a clinic, needles, scalpels, and oxygen tanks become instruments of painful killing instead of healing. Similarly, the opening coup is a well-choreographed, brutish affair, as an attack helicopter sends down a literal steel rain upon ardently cheering youths and the cars of the visiting Supreme Leader and his entourage. However, special effects are still a little shaky, in particular a sequence when a nuclear missile detonates above the sea.

Ending on a note of a hopeful and peaceful reconciliation between the two states mediated by principled citizens and leaders, “Steel Rain” is a new take on an old issue that evinces a greater distrust and cynicism in the reliance on world powers, shown here as shrewd brokers of their own national interests. Though not the most realistic or daring of cinematic endeavours, it is nonetheless another new step forward in the increasing maturity of a Korean film landscape that is capable of asking hard situations some harder questions.