While K-dramas and K-movies often traffic in inter-Korean romance, they also churn out North-South Korea bromances as well. One recent take on this bromantic sub-genre is Steel Rain 2: Summit. A distant sequel to 2017’s Steel Rain, this thriller stars Jung Woo-sung, Yoo Yeon-seok, and Kwak Do-won in an action-packed dramatization of inter-Korean relations. War movie buffs should appreciate its novel depiction of East Asian conflict, while political junkies curious about South Korea’s left wing will find its nationalistic idealism both instructive and droll.
Though its name implies a direct connection, Steel Rain 2 has no relation to the original Steel Rain’s storyline. The only similarities are that both films touch on inter-Korean relations, and Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won play characters. Steel Rain 2 begins in the turbulent leadup to a summit between South Korea, North Korea, and the United States. South Korean President Han Kyeong-jae (Jung Woo-sung) wants the three sides to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War and committing to denuclearization—reminiscent of the actual 2018-2020 Korean peace process.
However, geopolitical rumblings threaten to derail the summit before it even begins. Japan and China hatch a shadowy conspiracy, America under the Trump-esque President Smoot (Angus Macfadyen) demands South Korea’s participation in an undesirable naval exercise near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and North Korea’s military isn’t up to much good either.
Despite this, the summit commences in Wonsan, North Korea. Unfortunately, rogue North Korean soldiers under Supreme Guard Bureau Chief Park Jin-woo (Kwak Do-won) launch a coup—detaining President Han, President Smoot, and North Korean Supreme Leader Cho Seon-sa (Yoo Yeon-seok) on the ballistic missile submarine Paektu. Locked in a cramped compartment, the three heads of state must put aside their differences as the two Koreas, Japan, China, and the United States edge towards war in the ocean above.
Political and Military Details Galore
Steel Rain 2 feels like it wants to show off that it did a lot of geopolitical homework. The movie draws heavily from real-world precedents, and offers references both subtle and unsubtle that will please political junkies and war movie buffs alike.
Most obviously, the character of US President Smoot emulates Donald Trump. Smoot is vulgar, ignorant about Asian politics, and openly covets the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering inter-Korean peace. Those familiar with East Asian politics and history will find even more amusing references. The film’s main Japanese antagonist is named Shinzo Mori, who heads the “Yamato Foundation.” This seems like a shoutout to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Nippon Kaigi, an ultranationalist organization that Abe advises. There’s also a Chinese intelligence official named Song Shikai—perhaps an amusing amalgamation of Song Jiaoren and Yuan Shikai from China’s early Republican period.
War movie buffs can also appreciate the diverse array of military hardware that Steel Rain 2 exhibits. This is the only movie in the world that features Soryu and Oyashio class submarines alongside a Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft from Japan, Son Won-il class subs from South Korea, an American Virginia-class sub, and a North Korean ballistic missile submarine. In fact, the last half of Steel Rain 2 is pretty much a submarine movie, with ample torpedo evasion and depth charge dodging to boot. If anybody wants to see an Asian Hunt for the Red October, Steel Rain 2 will whet their appetite. The submarine battle scenes are as entertaining and well-produced as whatever Hollywood could come up with, and arguably more worthwhile given their unprecedented displays of East Asian military hardware.
Idealistic Left-Leaning Tropes
Unsurprisingly though, Steel Rain 2’s take on geopolitics has a heavily Korean tilt—one that especially reflects the nationalistic perspectives of South Korea’s left wing. In South Korea, those on the left (like current President Moon Jae-in) tend to favor rapprochement with North Korea, despise Japan, distrust America, and disdain those on the right for being insufficiently patriotic for not feeling the same. Steel Rain 2 reflects all these sentiments with an even greater degree of intensity than your average Korean film, which already tends to lean leftwards.
Without giving too much away, South Korean President Han ends up getting extremely chummy with a number of Steel Rain 2’s North Korean characters. Furthermore, the film’s very last scene includes Han directly exhorting the audience to “realize re-unification in our time.” This inter-Korean bromance is a common trope in Korean media, and channels the South Korean left’s recurring desire for reconciliation with North Korea. Unfortunately, as frequently as it occurs in Korean movies, such rapport and pro-unification rhetoric belies the difficulties of real-world inter-Korean dialog.
However, Steel Rain 2 goes several steps further in reflecting South Korean leftist nationalism. Much of the movie takes place around Dokdo, a disputed island that South Korea’s left has used as a rallying cry against Japan. In fact, the film spends an entire scene—which doesn’t really advance the plot—having the Korean characters explain in great detail to President Smoot why Dokdo belongs to Korea. This accurately reflects the lengths that South Korea goes to in getting both its own citizens and the international community to pay attention to the Dokdo issue, though international audiences might feel bemused at such tangential political preaching.
It’s even more intriguing and amusing how Steel Rain 2’s Korea-centric left-wing nationalism seeps into its depiction of international characters. For example, one key plot element of the movie relies on China deciding that it hates South Korea more than it hates Japan. That might feel believable to Koreans who’ve historically suffered at the hands of both those neighbors, but is utterly laughable to others familiar with just how intensely many Chinese still hate Japan. In another instance, Steel Rain 2 depicts US government officials referring to the body of water between Korea and Japan as the “East Sea.” This subtle word choice presumes Washington sides with Korea in the Sea of Japan naming dispute, which isn’t the case in reality.
A Fantasy of Inter-Korean Relations
All in all, Steel Rain 2: Summit’s bouts of left-wing Korean nationalism are highly educational, but also drolly idealistic. Similar to Crash Landing on You, Steel Rain 2 advances a fantasy of inter-Korean relations that draws from a rich foundation of facts, but crafts unrealistically sanguine interpretations and outcomes.
Yet, that’s likely by design. If a certain reality doesn’t yet exist, films can help inspire audiences to change the world in its direction; an actual Korean can better assess to what extent Steel Rain 2 accomplishes that goal. For war movie buffs and political junkies outside Korea though, Steel Rain 2: Summit will offer a novel degree of entertainment and education that Hollywood can’t match.
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Steel Rain 2: Summit (Korean: 강철비2: 정상회담)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean and English. Directed by Yang Woo-seok. First released July 29, 2020. Running time 2hr 12min. Starring Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won, Yoo Yeon-seok.