"There's a saying: 'People of a divided nation suffer more
from those who use the division for their political gain than from the division itself'..."


Um Cheol-woo (Jung Woo-sung) is a former North Korean military agent and spy. Coaxed out of 'retirement' by General Lee Tae-han (Kim Kap-soo), he is tasked with assassinating two high ranking individuals suspected of preparing to instigate a coup d’état in the North. Arriving in Kaesong - an economic zone largely serving Chinese businessmen - to carry out his furtive and dangerous mission, Um is unaware that the North's 'Great Leader' is attending a ceremony at the very same place and time. However, before Um even has a chance to find and focus his rifle on one of his targets, a group of military helicopters deploy a multiple launch rocket system (colloquially known as 'Steel Rain') on the area, critically injuring the North's 'No.1' in the process.
Um takes it on himself to rescue his Dear Leader and with the help of two young girls caught up in the fighting he bundles him into a van and heads across the border into the South to get him vital surgery. Ultimately working in tandem with South Korean agent Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak Do-won), Um and his new associate both know full well that if 'No.1' dies the North is virtually guaranteed to issue a declaration of war against the South and indeed the international community...


Note: For the purposes of this review, the two main characters played by Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won will be referred to throughout by their surnames - Um and Kwak - simply for ease of differentiation between two characters with exactly the same first name.

Steel Rain’s story is overall fairly straightforward but it is intricate nonetheless, and with numerous supporting characters having vital parts to play in proceedings as well as in-depth, dialogue heavy political wrangling back and forth throughout, it's important that viewers aren't dropped in at the deep end without at least some idea of the ongoing situation and its possible outcomes. As such, director Yang Woo-seok’s decision to open the film with Um being brought in front of General Lee to have the reason for his mission explained is a wise move, all in all. A cynical eye would likely consider this as exposition through dialogue but while I'm certainly not a huge fan of exposition in film in almost any respect (regardless of whether it's dialogue and conversation based or, God forbid, through narration) in this case its use is minimal, it has a legitimate purpose - rather than simply appearing as a somewhat lazy narrative device - and it actually serves that purpose well; allowing viewers to understand at least the basics of what is and could transpire in the most succinct manner possible and ensuring that when the true state of play comes to the fore audiences are fully aware of the truths given and indeed lies told.

Following this largely explanatory scene we are given an insight into Um's home life, introduced to Kwak and his estranged wife (whose part in proceedings as the doctor who will operate on ‘No.1' will result in the two men meeting and ultimately working together) and shown the first of many contrasts between their North and South existences outside their work and missions. Big budget action blockbusters are, let's face it,  far from known for giving time to character depth so brief though these North/South private lives juxtapositions are they are nonetheless welcome: director Yang Woo-seok even extending Um's backstory ever so slightly further in the film's latter stages to add an element of poignancy and allow Steel Rain to make the virtually de rigueur move towards the realm of melodrama.
Right from this early stage of character profiling, if you will, and throughout Steel Rain, director Yang also repeatedly contrasts the wherewithal of those in the South with the lack thereof of those in the North – Kwak taking his children for burgers at a wholly modern, brightly lit and bustling shopping mall while Um shares a meagre meal with his kids in his family's small and hardly adequately lit home; Kwak using the latest smartphone while Um's brick-like device that regularly fails to connect is reminiscent of 90s clunky, ultra-basic devices; the two northern cheerleaders being almost speechless at the ready availability of foods they've never been able to have in the North; etc – and while the inclusion of these is far from subtle and could even perhaps be said to be way too obvious, I personally didn't have any particular issue with them. Director Yang even manages to use their inclusion to elicit humour on occasion. Case in point: Kwak 'getting down', at the top of his lungs, to the music of G-dragon in a car while Um grudgingly listens to the tune with a look of utter horror and indeed pain on his face; even at one point asking what the hell the K-popper is singing about. Cheesy it may be, but it does serve to briefly lighten the load of what is ultimately a wholly tense and serious storyline.

Of course, we are talking about an action film here, the explosive elements kicking off as Um's mission gets underway. The action set pieces presented are without question utterly superb and visually arresting to the nth degree whether we're dealing with devastation caused by the steel rain (and the frankly insane resultant number of deaths – I have seen numerous disaster movies and the like whose ultimate head count is less than that of the first 40 minutes of Steel Rain); the frenetic high velocity car chases; or indeed the detonation of a nuclear device further into the narrative. It almost goes without saying that to depict such scenes, CGI is certainly in effect but it is handled wisely, never feeling overused or there simply for the sake of it, in any respect, and they are never allowed to take precedence over the unfolding highly political storyline. In fact, jaw dropping though these visual action elements are, the ‘mano-a-mano’, hand-to-hand combat scenes between Um and North Korean agents trying to put an end to the life of 'No.1' are easily as memorable and important, and that really is saying something. The fight choreography is absolutely exemplary and combines with breakneck pace editing to guarantee the placing of viewers on the very edge of their seats. One only has to take a look at a fight scene in which Um and a North Korean agent beat seven levels of Hell out of each other, guns in hand firing off shots within centimetres of both their heads, to deem Steel Rain’s action the best of the best; easily rivalling films that have had accolades for such, such as The Villainess, for example.

However, the strongest aspect by far of Steel Rain has nothing whatsoever to do with action, exemplary and gripping though that action is. It is the relationship between Um and Kwak and its gradual move from tension to bonding to trust. Whether you consider director Yang’s decision to give both men the first name of Cheol-woo as some sort of a statement of humanity’s similarities across a divide, those similarities are there nonetheless, felt by both men and ultimately by viewers through the characters’ growing chemistry and ever so gradual mutual trust.

It does have to be said that Jung Woo-sung’s North Korean accent does come across as somewhat odd, even stilted, on occasion and while that fact is unlikely to even register with non-Korean-speaking viewers and those relying wholly on subtitles, it will nonetheless be fairly apparent to those with even a fair to middling understanding of the Korean language. However, any such issues relating to Jung Woo-sung’s dialogue pale into absolute insignificance when compared to Kwan Do-won's attempts at using the English language. Here we have a supposedly multi-lingual security agent who is apparently able to converse with top ranking Western, English-speaking, politicians and journalists on deeply complex and involved issues but whose vocal command of English is abysmal to the extent that even English viewers will struggle to understand what he is saying without looking to the film's subtitles for help. In fact, though it's hard to say for sure, I'd almost wager that Kwak Do-won learnt his English dialogue phonetically (or attempted to) rather than having an actual grasp of the English language. While Kwak's character thankfully isn't called upon to try to speak English on too many occasions, his failure to adequately do so when he is stands as a glaring and repeatedly far too memorable issue for all the wrong reasons, and the fact that the Korean language portions of his performance are accomplished throughout makes this even more of a shame.
Over the years, there has also been somewhat of a trend in Korean cinema as a whole (as far as I'm concerned, at least) for Western actors giving performances in English that are noticeably ‘acted’ or that come across as less than natural. While I've certainly seen numerous examples of this bent, if you will, that are far more jarring than any such performances in Steel Rain, in terms especially of those Western actors playing the highest ranking US politicians in the film, their performances could be said to be somewhat forced and less than 100% convincing.

The above language issues aside, Steel Rain is overall wholly believable; its intricate narrative presented with realism in a gripping, pulse-pounding manner. Considering the film's almost doomsday scenario, it's fairly understandable that the story began as a webtoon (again created by director Yang Woo-seok) but considering the fact that you can hardly turn on the news or open a newspaper without being presented with repeated chest-beating tensions between North Korea and the West - and indeed increasing Northern protestations of nuclear capability – the realism of Steel Rain underlines just how easily, and frighteningly, fiction could become fact.


While Steel Rain’s action set pieces are always exemplary, often visually breathtaking, it is the growing trust between the two main characters from either side of the Peninsula that is the film's true and lasting strength; speaking of humanity’s similarities across a seemingly insurmountable divide, problems with accents and the English language notwithstanding.


STEEL RAIN (강철비 / 2017)
Director: Yang Woo-seok
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won, Kim Kap-soo


All images © Next Entertainment World
Review © Paul Quinn