Director: Kim Jee-woon Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Um Tae-goo Running time: 140 minutes
Twists and turns are prerequisites of the spy thriller and at times, it can be difficult to get into a film that telegraphs its surprises by the very genre. Many attempt to pull it off by being so convuluted in their plotting that firm grips on what makes sense, what doesn’t and whose side who is on become harder to maintain. Though with a talented filmmaker like Kim Jee-woon, the director of I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad and the Weird and one or the most well regarded names in Korean cinema, a film like The Age of Shadows can provide those thrills handily and more besides.
Kim ups the measure of blood spilled considerably from comparible films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that may have as much to do with the film’s setting as its director. There’s nothing Cold about the war being waged in The Age of Shadows, between Korean resistance fighters and the Japanese authorities ruling over them in the 1920s. Strikes are made in secret, informants are the most crucial weapons (well, informants and dynamite) and the resistance fighters are determined to oust their disdainful oppressers, a hardline patriotic look at Korean history that can be easily relateable to plenty of Irish viewers. The police captain Lee Jung-chool has managed to thrive in this paranoid period, selling out the resistance to better his own standing with the Japanese. But Jung-chool begins doubting himself after his duplicity leads to the death of a personal friend. Along with the ruthless and ambitious Hashimoto, Jung-chool is tasked with hunting down the Korean leaders, but all along they’re turning him to their side. The closer he gets to helping them, the easier it would be to sell them all down the river and the more dangerous it becomes for him to get caught. Through Jung-chool, the conflict between the resistance and the Japanese is internalised. It’s not a question of us or them. It’s us or yourself.
Veteran actor Song Kang-ho succeeds in making Jung-chool an engaging figure, giving a pragmatic qualities to a character that might otherwise comes across as cowardly or indecisive. Jung-chool might be out to protect his own neck for much of the film, but you have to be shrewd to play both sides and Jung-chool can fake getting drunk just as well as Kim Woo-jin, the resistence member most invested in turning the police captain to their side. Gong Yoo, playing the charismatic Woo-jin and Um Tae-goo as Hashimoto make strong foils for the lead and it’s amongst these three that the film works the most clearly. Beyond that, character identities are more blurred, the resistance leader played by Lee Byung-hun has just enough importance and screentime to extend beyond a cameo but is absent from the film in confusing ways and a potentially interesting character is wasted as she (of course) functions as little more than a love interest and Male Angst Device. There’s a mystery about moles, but the way the characters are set up it only really matters if it’s Woo-jin or Jung-chool.
Yet even with some weaker characters, Kim Jee-woon keeps the film gripping, particularly during am extended train-set sequence that tells a whole story in itself. Characters are literally boxed in and split off, the pressure rising rapidly for almost an hour before exploding spectacularly and bloodily. The action is wild, chaotic and violent, visualising the high stakes by not shying away from the burning flesh behind the smoke in smoke and mirrors. The train sequence is so climactic that the film almost can’t help but feel over-long from there, but even if there’s some dragging from there The Age of Shadows picks back up to a worthwile conclusion. A pulpy but gripping thriller, The Age of Shadows is well-worth seeking out.(4 / 5)