In late 2017, while U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un were still trading apocalyptic threats and petty insults, South Korean movie audiences were being treated to an alternative take on the peninsula’s atomic politics—in the form of gonzo action thriller Gangcheolbi.
That’s Steel Rain in English.
Equal parts Bad Boys, The Raid, and Tom Clancy adaptation—with a healthy dose of Korean nationalism on top—Steel Rain is writer-director Yang Woo-seok’s second film after the 2013 courtroom drama The Attorney.
It’s nutso. But only slightly more nutso than what’s really happening in the Koreas.
I’m going to go ahead and sort of spoil Steel Rain. In the end, a bookish South Korean presidential adviser—played with a light touch by Kwak Do-won—essentially convinces his government to nuclearize.
That’s the very opposite of what most people in the real world want for the Koreas, but in the world of Steel Rain, it actually represents the sane, peaceful choice. Mostly owing to a series of profoundly bad calls by the movie’s blustering, belligerent American secretary of state, portrayed by Game of Thrones’ Ron Donachie.
Steel Rain’s nuclear showdown begins with the attempted assassination of Kim Jong Un during a ceremony at the Kaesong industrial zone, a real-life joint North and South Korean factory complex.
It’s shockingly violent. No one likes seeing scores of teenage cheerleaders get blown up by artillery. Kim is badly hurt but alive. A former North Korean spy, played with simmering intensity by Jung Woo-sung, sneaks the dictator into a Seoul clinic under a pile of stuffed toy pandas, saving his life.
For obvious political reasons the movie never names Kim or shows his face. Characters call him “The General” or “Number One.’ Steel Rain’s Kim spends most of the movie wounded, unconscious and covered in a sheet.
Kim is, in effect, the film’s MacGuffin—something for the protagonists and antagonists to fight over. A chain of unlikely events compel Kwak’s adviser and Jung’s spy to work together to protect Kim from assassins and, ultimately, return him safely to North Korea. It’s the only way to end the coup and prevent the plotters from launching an invasion of South Korea.
There are car chases, brutal gun battles in hospital stairwells, and high-stakes confrontations involving various furrowed-brow generals and politicians. Comedy beats interrupt the violence. The North Korean spy marvels at fast-food restaurants and cringes at South Korean pop music. The South Korean adviser gets hit in the face with doors and interrupts secret missions for long lunch breaks.
Steel Rain is a buddy comedy wrapped in an action movie wrapped in a technothriller. “If anything happens to him, there will be war!” the spy shouts at the adviser, referring to the unconscious Kim.
The adviser rolls his eyes. “OK,” he says mockingly.
For all the insanity around them, the Korean characters—North and South—are sympathetic and fairly reasonable. Even when they’re killing each other and hatching war plans.
It’s the Americans who wreck everything. As tensions escalate, the CIA station chief in Seoul, played by Kristen Dalton, more or less announces that life is meaningless and flees to Japan. The U.S. secretary of state’s plan is to pre-emptively nuke North Korea. It’s simpler, you see, than sorting out all these complicated politics.
Incredibly, it’s the North Koreans who thwart the U.S. attack and save the world. Bewildered and humiliated, the Americans shuffle off-screen, leaving the Koreans to solve their own problems.
And boy howdy do they ever solve them. The film’s climax involves tunnels full of North Korean soldiers, a tracking device, a precision air strike by South Korean fighter jets and some truly outside-the-box thinking by Kwak’s adviser.
With the coup on hold and Kim recovering, the adviser proposes a radical solution to the peninsula’s problems. He offers to return Kim to North Korea... in exchange for half of the North’s atomic warheads. Now there will be two nuclear-armed Koreas.
Not only will that prevent either Korea from attacking the other, it will also prevent America from intervening in Korean politics with its own bluster, threats and atomic sneak-attacks.
Nuclear proliferation is Steel Rain’s happy ending. It’s weird and upsetting. But then, so is the sight of Donald Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong Un and praising Kim’s “great personality.”
Steel Rain is on Netflix.