Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Verdict:

One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (허삼관) – ★★☆☆☆

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (허삼관)

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (허삼관)

In 1953, Gongju City is in the process of rebuilding following the devastating war. Resting for lunch with his fellow workers, Sam-gwan (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is ridiculed for his status as a bachelor. Yet upon seeing beautiful Ok-ran (Ha Ji-won (하지원) he becomes instantly smitten and determined to marry her and, after acquiring money through selling his blood and striking a deal with her father, Sam-gwan and Ok-ran are wed. 11 years later, the couple live in relative harmony with their three sons, until a rumour spreads through the village that their eldest boy Il-rak (Nam Da-reum (남다름) actually belongs to Ok-ran’s ex-suitor. As the household is thrown into turmoil by the news, Sam-gwan again finds himself selling blood as the family are forced to redefine their relationships.

Sam-gwan falls for the most beautiful girl in the village, Ok-ran

Sam-gwan falls for the most beautiful girl in the village, Ok-ran

Based on Yu Hua’s 1995 novel, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is Ha Jeong-woo’s second attempt at writing and directing duties following Fasten Your Seatbelt and, while generally competently helmed and produced, the comedy-drama features truly abysmal and outrageous sexual politics, plot holes galore, and an intensely dislikable ‘hero’ in the form of Ha’s Sam-gwan.

The premise of Blood Merchant is centered around raising an illegitimate child, and the narrative consistently attempts and fails to generate comedy from the situation. After hearing the rumours regarding eldest son Il-rak’s parentage, Sam-gwan confronts his wife demanding answers and as Ok-ran reluctantly explains how an ex-suitor forced himself upon her, the film has the gall to focus on Sam-gwan’s suffering as a man who didn’t marry a virgin as well as raise a boy biologically not his own. The narrative intends to generate humour by inferring Sam-gwan is a victim of humiliation rather than focusing on Ok-ran’s suffering from the legacy of sexual assault, a strategy which is completely appalling particularly as a source of entertainment. The fact that Sam-gwan then spends the rest of the film punishing Ok-ran for being raped by sulking as well as virtually disowning Il-rak makes the character particularly despicable and impossible to empathise with. It’s a creative decision from which Blood Merchant never recovers and, following on from Sam-gwan’s almost literal ‘purchase’ of Ok-ran in the first act, the comedy-drama is anything but enlightened.

Sam-gwan and eldest boy Il-rak attempt to redefine their relationship

Sam-gwan and eldest boy Il-rak attempt to redefine their relationship

Things change in the finale however as Blood Merchant opts for the oft-used cliche of poor health in order to bring the family together once more. As both writer and director Ha works hard to generate sentiment though the use of melodramatic conventions which work well, yet as Sam-gwan has behaved so dreadfully leading up to the resolution it is especially difficult to invest in his journey, let alone consider him the hero and saviour of the family. Furthermore the gaps in logic are particularly puzzling, for if any man were to undertake the tasks Sam-gwan does, death would be an absolute certainty.

In terms of star power, both Ha Jeong-woo and Ha Ji-won perform capably. Unfortunately they lack any sort of onscreen chemistry and the narrative doesn’t really create opportunities for it to arise, yet individually they do well despite the lack of characterisation. Their presence in Blood Merchant should guarantee that the film will be a greater success than Fasten Your Seatbelt, though ironically the film isn’t really theirs but young actor Nam Da-reum’s. Nam is the heart and soul of the film and it’s his performance as eldest son Il-rak that makes Blood Merchant watchable and entertaining.

The sale of blood helps the family through tough times

The sale of blood helps the family through tough times

Verdict:

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is Ha Jeong-woo’s second foray as writer/director, and while he competently helms the comedy drama the shameful sexual politics within the film results in an intensely dislikable lead protagonist. It’s an issue from which the comedy-drama never recovers despite the inclusion of traditional melodramatic conventions in the final act, yet luckily the film is made watchable through the performance of young actor Nam Da-reum.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

For exciting new Korean films, the Korean Cinema Today program at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) highlights some of the best and latest productions emerging from the industry.

Korean Cinema Today is separated into two sub-categories – Panorama and Vision. While Vision explores the latest independent films and exciting new filmmaking talent, Panorama showcases some of the big domestic and internationally acclaimed films, as well as more high profile world premieres.

The 14 films in Panorama 2013 contains some of the biggest names working in the industry today. For arthouse fans, Kim Ki-duk’s highly controversial Moebius, as well as two Hong Sang-soo films – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi – make appearances. Two directorial debuts are included in the form of superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s Fasten Your Seatbelt, and veteran actor Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star. King of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho’s latest animation The Fake is featured. There are also exciting new projects that involve crowdfunding, human rights issues, and the debut of K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in a lead role.

For the lowdown on all the films within the sub-category, please see below.

Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

Abbi (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Director: Jang Hyun-soo (장현수)

Synopsis: Abbi – or rather, Twisted Daddy – is a drama about a father whose dedication to his son becomes out of hand. Working hard to ensure his son can study law and become successful, the aging father risks everything.

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Director: Kim Tae-yun (김태윤)

Synopsis: Crowdfunding was sourced to produce this real life legal drama about a woman who contracts leukemia while working at a Samsung factory. The film follows the family’s efforts overcome the disease as well as the corporation responsible.

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

Director: Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완)

Synopsis: The Berlin File was a big hit upon release earlier his year. With an all-star cast including Ha Jeong-woo and Jeon Ji-hyeon, the action-thriller showcased director Ryoo’s style like never before. For the full review, please click here.

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director: Yeon Sang-ho (연상호)

Synopsis: Following on from his hugely successful film King of Pigs, director Yeon Sang-ho employs his biting cultural critique stylisation to explore corrupted religious officials who are holding a small town to ransom.

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Director: Ha Jeong-woo (하정우)

Synopsis: Fasten Your Seatbelt – or ‘Rollercoaster‘ in Korean – marks superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s directorial debut. The comedy sees mismatched characters collide when their plane encounters a typhoon.

God's Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

Director: Lee Jang-ho (이장호)

Synopsis: Lee Jang-ho was a prominent director during the 1970s and ’80s, and after an 18 year hiatus has re-entered filmmaking with God’s Eye View. The film explores a group of missionaries whose faith wanes after abduction by Islamic rebels.

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Director: Kim Sung-su (김성수)

Synopsis: A co-production between Korea and Japan, sci-fi Genome Hazard depicts a man seemingly losing his sanity following the apparent death of his wife. Director Kim previously worked with Park Chan-wook and Son Il-gon.

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

Directors: Min Yong-keun (민용근), Lee Sang-cheol (이상철), Shin A-ga (신아가), Park Jung-bum (박정범)

Synopsis: Produced by the National Human Rights Commission, this omnibus film represents radically different stories about people living on the fringes of society, and the hardships they endure.

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Director: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)

Synopsis: Moebius was marred by controversy before it was released.  Kim Ki-duk’s psychosexual thriller examines a family torn apart by adultery, penis dismemberment, and incest.

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

Director: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Synopsis: Town trilogy and The Weight director Jeon Kyu-hwan explores the life of an impulse disorder patient and his long-suffering family in My Boy. cultural attitudes towards mental health and the medical system are examined.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: University student Haewon feels lonely following her mother’s departure for Canada, and contacts married lover – and professor – Seong-joon. A story of a young woman’s quest for identity.

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: Sunhi is a film student who, wishing to continue her studies in America, seeks a recommendation letter from her professor. Yet in doing so, she unwittingly allows 3 different men attempt to advise her over her future.

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Director: Shin Yeon-shick (신연식)

Synopsis: A sequel of sorts to Rough Cut, Rough Play is concerned with a rising film star who becomes involved with gangsters, leading to a downward spiral. Based on an idea by Kim Ki-duk, the film features K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in the lead role.

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Director: Park Joong-hoon (박중훈)

Synopsis: Veteran actor Park Joong-hoon makes his debut with Top Star, a film about a talent manager who suddenly becomes a superstar. Yet as his popularity increase, so does his arrogance and determination to stay at the top.

 

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Ha Jeong-woo’s Directorial Debut ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ gets Trailer and BIFF Premiere

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Superstar Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) has decided to take a step behind the camera as both writer and director for his latest project, with his debut arriving in the form of comedy Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터).

The film follows a group of misfits on a flight from Tokyo to Gimpo Airport and the comedic events that occur when the plane enters the path of a typhoon. The mismatched characters – including a hallyu pop star, a monk, a photographer, as well as other passengers and crew – must all try to work together despite their certainty that the flight will end in disaster.

Fasten Your Seatbelt is due to premiere at the 2013 18th Busan International Film Festival under the ‘Korean Cinema Today – Panorama’ category. Please see below for the trailer.

Film News
Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – ★★★★☆

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브)

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브)

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) is a rare breed of Korean thriller. Featuring superstar Ha Jeong-woo (하정우), the film takes place almost entirely within a single room rather than racing against time around a city. As such it shares several tropes with Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, ramping up tension through the claustrophobic setting while simultaneously exposing the lead protagonist for past bad deeds.

Within the highly restrictive setting director Kim Byeong-woo (김병우) does an excellent job in generating suspense, while the critique of the highly competitive – and corrupt – world of the newsroom makes the thriller a surprisingly deep cultural examination. However, the film is let down by a lack of characterisation in regards to the central roles while the tension is often undermined by arguably unintentional comedy. Despite such shortcomings The Terror Live is a unique and interesting addition to the genre, and one which leaves audiences wondering about the villains in society after the credits have finished rolling.

Yeong-hwa is apathetic in his role as a radio show host

Yeong-hwa is apathetic in his role as a radio show host

Recently divorced and demoted to a radio show host, Yoon Yeong-hwa (Ha Jeong-woo) couldn’t care less about his new role as he repeatedly offends callers with his brusque manner. However when one caller phones in and claims to have primed bombs on Mapo Bridge located near the station, Yeong-hwa scoffs – and moments later the bridge is in ruins. Seeing this as his chance to return to the spotlight as a TV news anchor, Yeong-hwa teams up with former manager Cha Dae-eun (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), quickly setting up a newsroom and broadcasting the terrorists demands instead of reporting to the police.  As the ratings skyrocket and other news agencies struggle to catch up, it quickly becomes apparent to Yeong-hwa that something is very, very wrong as the terrorist becomes increasingly fixated on him personally, intent on exposing his checkered past.

One of the great strengths of The Terror Live is in conveying the cutthroat manner executed by those in power and in the media.  The thriller is one of the few films to tackle the issue of real news and the mediated news presented to society, capturing the seemingly inherent corruption and societal risks taken in the war for ratings.  Within this framework Yeong-hwa – whose name literally means ‘movie’ – is very much at home and director Kim does a superb job in slowly drip-feeding character information throughout the narrative. From the outset Yeong-hwa is certainly in-keeping with other thriller anti-heroes as he thrives in the grey areas of morality, only coming to reconsider his position due to the threat of exposure. As such the anchorman must not only acquire, filter, and present the news to Korean society and outwit a terrorist on live television, but also fend off a damaging character assassination attempt and please his management. Juggling so many plot threads is consistently riveting viewing, as new dimensions to the case constantly challenge everything Yeong-hwa and the audience have come to learn, driving up suspense for a thrilling viewing experience.

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Ironically however the inclusion of so many plot threads is also one of The Terror Live‘s key flaws, as there is so much going on that character development is sacrificed. Ha Jeong-woo is a gifted actor and performs very competently, yet he is given little to work with as Yeong-hwa other than being a shrewd and morally ambiguous news anchor. The same criticism also applies to the terrorist, who clearly has strong motivation for his attacks but is a rather two-dimensional antagonist. Luckily director Kim’s highly kinetic camerawork keeps such issues at bay featuring a variety of techniques including crash-zooms and realism-inducing camera shaking as well as more traditional fare, while the rapid editing helps to ramp up the tension without ever becoming nauseating.

The suspense generated within the confines of the newsroom is very impressive, yet bizarrely there are often instances of unwarranted comedy that serve to completely undermine the tension. It is difficult to know if such moments are intentional or not. When Yeong-hwa struggles with a situation and begins swearing at his oppressors it is incredibly funny, although the straight faces within the film suggest otherwise. Once the comedy has passed however it’s back to business and the dramatics increase further, leading to a daring finale and a potent commentary on Korean politics and the media.

The conflict between the bid for ratings or stopping the terrorist put the team at odds

The conflict between the bid for ratings or stopping the terrorist put the team at odds

Verdict:

The Terror Live is a rare and highly interesting thriller. Within the confines of a newsroom director Kim Byeong-woo does an excellent job in escalating tension by featuring a variety of camerawork techniques, while the story regarding corruption within both Korean media and the government is a potent socio-cultural critique. While the lack of characterisation and (arguably unintentional) comedy undermines the suspense, there is more than enough on offer to provide an entertaining thrill-ride from start to finish.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

The Berlin File (베를린) – ★★★★☆

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The hype generated for writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan’s (류승완) latest action-thriller The Berlin File (베를린) has been fierce. Boasting a stellar line-up of acting talent, and with the director’s last film The Unjust (부당거래) proving popular with audiences and critics alike, curiosity has been fervent as to whether director Ryoo could take his trademark mix of multiple narratives and high-octane action to the next level.

The Berlin File features a genuine evolution in director Ryoo’s style, with some of the most adrenaline-inducing action sequences in recent memory and a huge leap up from his prior films. Yet as with his past filmography, The Berlin File is also stunted by far too many protagonists and a highly convoluted narrative, while his preoccupation with male characters relegates Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현) to the sidelines. However, the director must be congratulated for the scale of the film, not only for filming in a foreign country with the inclusion of several languages, but also for featuring a North Korean spy as the hero of the film.

After a weapons deal in Berlin goes wrong, top North Korean agent Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) attempts to flee the scene. Unbeknownst to him however are the South Korean agents on his tail, led by Jeong Jin-soo (Han Seok-Kyu (한석규). As the two men clash Jong-seong manages to escape back to his safe house and wife Ryeon Jeong-hee (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), who works as a translator – and ‘entertainer’ – at the North Korean consulate. With the new Kim Jong-un government establishing themselves, suspicions arise that a traitor exists in the Berlin offices. Dispatching ruthless North Korean agent Dong Myeong-soo (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find the mole, all the evidence seemingly points to Jeong-hee. Yet Jong-seong and Myeong-soo come into conflict, tensions reach breaking point when the CIA, Mossad, Arabic forces and the South Korean agency all enter the fray, leading to a violent showdown.

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong's life is in danger

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong’s life is in danger

With The Berlin File, director Ryoo has eschewed the reverential martial arts fare of his prior films in favor of the brutal espionage style exhibited within The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, and emerged all the stronger for it. Indeed, the director has adopted many of the features of Paul Greengrass’ spy classics by utilising a moving camera and rapid editing during the lighting-quick action sequences, producing some of best work of his career and representing a true evolution in his abilities. In addition to the exhilarating action and stunt work, the danger of the spy world is wonderfully conveyed. The various betrayals and secret dealings between the disparate agencies produce an intense atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust that continually keeps the audience guessing, harnessing the paranoia of the Cold War era in a contemporary context. By tapping into the fear of the transitioning North Korean government, the story achieves potency as the war for information and power takes on an all-too-real aspect that serves to heighten tension further. Similarly the choice of Berlin is a masterstroke given its history, and director Ryoo films the city as if it were a character itself. The distinctly European style coffee shops and restaurants, the lively streets and the shadowy alleyways all converge to portray the German capital as a hub of culture and intrigue, and one where danger lies at every turn.

Placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of The Berlin File is also an enthralling decision, representing a genuine shift in the relevance of protagonists from the country. Just as Shiri (쉬리) opened up a wave of storytelling regarding ‘brotherhood’ between the two nations, The Berlin File takes it a step further by emphasizing Jong-seong as more active than his South Korean counterpart Jin-soo, despite the corruption that blights them both. As the top spy of the communist country, Ha Jeong-woo gives a great performance and is highly convincing as the cold, detached secret agent. His lines in English and German are delivered with confidence and assuredness and are quite impressive throughout, while his composure during action sequences mark him out as a genuine action star. Ryoo Seung-beom also handles himself particularly well as ruthless agent Dong Myeong-soo, conveying an unsettling villainy with cocky self-assurance that serves as a great counterpoint to Jong-seong’s naivety. It is acutely fitting that Shiri star Han Seok-Kyu features within the film as older South Korean agent Jin-soo, almost forming as an angrier, more frustrated extension of the prior character. While he occasionally stumbles when performing in English the actor conveys the bitter frustration of his situation convincingly. Unfortunately, out of all the protagonists it’s Jeon Ji-hyeon who is short-changed as translator Jeong-hee. The actress performs the role with skill, however it simply isn’t developed enough for her to display her talent, and as such she functions as little more than a damsel in distress.

Jong-seong's wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

Jong-seong’s wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

The issues with Jeon Ji-hyeon’s underdeveloped role highlights the main, and rather large, issue within The Berlin File. There are just far too many characters within the narrative, each containing their own history and motivations for taking part in the proceedings, enacting scores of double-crosses with those around them to achieve their goals. Director Ryoo ambitiously attempts to give service to every faction and individual, yet in doing so he loses focus on the core protagonists and as a result their development suffers. The array of narrative tangents also bogs down the main impetus of Jong-seong’s mission which a great deal of time and effort was spent constructing, while the variety of betrayals and red herrings that occur make the plot a confusing, and somewhat frustrating, viewing experience.

Perhaps for this reason director Ryoo seems unsure how to finish his spy thriller, and as a result the finale boils down to something of a stereotypical stand-off seen in generic action films. To the directors credit, the final act is indeed exciting as gunfire hails from all directions while physical confrontations feature some vicious, wince-inducing moments. Yet despite the exhilarating fun of watching the good and bad guys duke it out in the high stakes battle, it’s difficult not to feel that it is mismatched with what came before, and that a less convoluted plot would have ultimately led to a more rewarding finale.

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he garbained for

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

Verdict:

The Berlin File represents a stylistic evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan, featuring some of the best action and stunt sequences in recent memory and arguably the best of his career. The director captures the paranoia of the spy world with confidence and skill, employing the city of Berlin incredibly well as the location of espionage. While the over-abundance of characters and narrative tangents bog down Jong-seong’s mission, director Ryoo deserves credit for going beyond the themes of ‘brotherhood’ by actually placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of the film, making The Berlin File an exhilarating, if somewhat convoluted, spy thriller.

★★★★☆

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