EXPECTATIONS: A technically masterful and endearingly old-fashioned spy thriller.
REVIEW: Kim Jee-woon is one hell of a versatile film-maker. The first film of his that I saw was on Australian television over 15 years ago. And that was his first feature-length film, the hilarious dark comedy, The Quiet Family. And to think that I assumed that The Quiet Family was a Japanese film (it has a Japanese remake as well) since I thought the first Korean film I saw was My Sassy Girl, it was a film that just kept on giving.
With a fresh cast that will become established stars and character actors (Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-shik and others) and assured direction from Kim, it was more than enough for me to look forward to his other work. Branching from comedy (The Foul King) to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters) to crime (A Bittersweet Life) to westerns (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) to thrillers (I Saw The Devil) to sci-fi (Doomsday Book) and even romance (One Perfect Day), I have enjoyed every project that he has made.
And after his mildly entertaining effort with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand, he has come back to Korea with a bang with this period film/spy thriller, The Age of Shadows, which has gathered critical acclaim from the Venice Film Festival and has been chosen to be the submission for the best foreign film at the Oscars. But does the film live up to the hype?
Set in the 1920’s, Song Kang-ho stars as Lee Jung-chool, a high ranking officer whose allegiance is with Japanese overlords over the Korean people. They have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement. With the unenviable reputation of being a sell-out of his own people, none of it compares when a former classmate turned resistance fighter dies in front of him. On the other side of the conflict, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) notices Lee in his dilemma and sees an opportunity to defect him onto their side.
And that commences the development of reeling Lee in, with Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a key figure in the resistance handling the case. His antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. While Lee could bring down this operation at any moment as well as being forcibly teamed up with the high-tempered Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), he also has an equal chance to become an ally, thanks in no small part to Kim and his psychological tactics.
If you’ve seen the trailer or any of Kim’s work, you can expect that The Age of Shadows is a technically masterful piece of work. The cinematography by Kim Ji-yong (A Bittersweet Life, Hansel and Gretel) is striking and atmospheric throughout from the thrilling opening set-piece to the 30-minute train sequence that is a masterpiece of sustained suspense and tension.
The musical score by Mowg compliments the film as well, with an understated use of percussion to wonderful music choices like Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” and the best use of Ravel’s “Bolero” since Sion Sono’s Love Exposure. The editing by Yang Jin-mo is tight, ensuring maximum tension, fast pace and minimum fat during the 140 minute run-time.
Kim Jee-woon’s direction is in absolute control throughout the film. Getting us into the film immediately with its opening sequence, establishing the plot and character backstories with extreme efficiency, messing with the audience and their allegiance with playful humour and an assured hand, Kim Jee-woon is at this best.
None of this is affirmed more clearly than in the 30 minute train sequence. Going back and forth between characters, shifting allegiances alongside the expected violence that Kim packs into his films, it is thrilling to behold. Like with I Saw the Devil, there are moments in the film that are stomach-churning, like its interrogative torture sequences but don’t expect them to be with the same intensity of the former.
And let’s not forget the stellar acting from the cast. I don’t usually like to compare foreign actors to Hollywood counterparts, but if it gets Westerners to recognize talent overseas, I’ll have to do it. Song Kang-ho is basically like the Tom Hanks of Korea. Having adept comedy chops, tons of charisma and the capability to pull off compelling understated performances, Song is one of Korea’s finest actors, and in The Age of Shadows, he gives further proof of his reputation. He plays his character’s dilemmas very well, whether it is the questioning of his allegiance to his Japanese superiors and his country or his buried stress of his need to survive.
Gong Yoo is becoming a capable leading man as of late since the shocking true-story drama Silenced and the action flick The Suspect and if the year of 2016 signals anything, this film alongside the blockbuster Train to Busan is a great year for Gong. In The Age of Shadows, Gong mixes star-charisma with a strong sense of determination that makes his character easy to root for.
As for the supporting cast, Han Ji-min makes the most out of her screen-time, making a convincing sorta love-interest. And the same goes for Lee Byung-hun, in an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance. A standout of a villain is Um Tae-goo as Hashimoto. Gloriously over-the-top yet still conveying a sense of menace, Um provides a clear antagonist that we love to hate. His standout moment is when he berates his men and it is the most amusingly violent slapping scene since Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop.
As for nitpicks, the only one that is noticeable is the slightly overlong ending, the mildly convoluted plot and the fact that there is no deep meaning to it all. Korean cinema still keeps up its winning streak with The Age of Shadows; Kim Jee-woon’s long-awaited comeback to Korea. With stellar performances, thrilling setpieces, masterful storytelling and top-notch production values, The Age of Shadows is a must-see for anyone who loves film, particularly period films, spy thrillers and cloak-and-dagger flicks. Highly recommended.
Stellar acting performances
Top-notch production values
Kim Jee-woon’s masterful storytelling chops
Slightly overlong ending
Slightly convoluted plot
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Screenwriters: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae, Kim Jee-woon