Monday, November 2, 2020

Busan 2020 Review: STEEL RAIN 2: SUMMIT Dives into Thrilling and Surprisingly Funny Geopolitical Waters

Part of MKC's coverage of the 25th Busan International Film Festival.

By Pierce Conran

Released three years, ago, the geopolitical action-thriller Steel Rain (2017) was a solid success on the charts but one that was completely overshadowed by two films that hit theaters within a fortnight of its release, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds and 1987: When the Day Comes. Given its closed narrative and what was a positive but muted reception, it hardly seemed a likely candidate for the sequel treatment, still a rarity in the Korean film industry. Yet, three years later that’s exactly what we got, but what’s even more surprising is that despite returning with the same director, stars and theme, Steel Rain 2: Summit completely reinvents itself and manages to surpass its predecessor in almost every way.

Tensions are high in Fear East Asia on the eve of a summit between the leaders of the Koreas and the United States, which, if successful, would lead to a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in the region, which would pave the way for an end to the Korean War (which has never officially ended since a ceasefire agreement in 1953). Beyond the varied interests of the three involved parties, Japan and China have their own positions, both official and not, on what may transpire during the summit. The three leaders gather in Wonsan in North Korea but talks are initially slow and at that vulnerable moment, North Korean hardliners, led by the commander of the guard, stage a coup and abduct all three leaders, secretly confining them to a North Korean nuclear submarine.

This is the busy first act of Steel Rain 2. Granted, that’s a fair amount of exposition, and it doesn’t even touch on the geopolitical machinations or get to the meat and potatoes of the story and its protagonists. It takes a moment to tune into the film’s wavelength and attempt to untangle its political angles and subterfuge, but some welcome comedy and strong character work make absorbing this initial information dump a relatively painless affair. However, once we’ve gone underwater and left the scheming bureaucrats behind in their own headspinning diplomatic quagmires above sea level, that’s when the real fun starts.

Despite assembling the same actors this is a sequel in name only that clears the board for a new geopolitical mess with a whole new set of characters. No longer a lean North Korean fighting machine, Jung Woo-sung plays the South Korean president, a pragmatic idealist who acts as a broker between the other, more hot-headed heads of state in the sub with him. Kwak Do-won, formerly a South Korean security advisor, is now the brusque commander of the guard, who doesn’t hesitate to brandish his sidearm and execute his own men if they do follow his directives to the letter.

Steel Rain 2 also features a very welcome trio of additions. Yoo Yeon-seok (The Beauty Inside, 2015) takes on the most compelling film role of his career to date as the conflicted North Korean leader, Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart) is an unexpected riot as a Trump-like US president, and a scene-stealing supporting turn from veteran character actor Shin Jung-geun (Tunnel, 2016) as a dutiful North Korean sub captain might have swiped the movie out from beneath them all were they not all so good.

The mid-section of the film, much of which features the three leaders squabbling with each other in a cramped cabin, is a terrific chamber piece in which low-brow toilet humor somehow harmoniously co-exists with clever character interplay and thrilling scheming. When things get a little more bombastic for the final stretch (this is an action film after all, and a sub movie at that) we revert to a more traditional pattern as the heads of state have banded joins forces against the odds and go head-to-head with the hardliners, while torpedoes start frothing the seas as an international mix of subs descend on the area.

The inter-Korean dynamic is pure wishful thinking and the staunchly anti-Japanese tone (surely they’re the least important player in this geopolitical theater leaves a bit a bad taste, but by the time a rip-roaring series of submarine set pieces have concluded and we’ve reached a predictably nationalistic ending, Steel Rain 2 has handily surpassed all expectations to become the most satisfying and grandly entertaining commercial sortie for Korean cinema in 2020 (a light year to be sure, but still).


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