by Jason Suzuki
Much has already been written, including by myself, about the particular timing of South Korea's three biggest filmmaking imports Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jee-woon. At the same time they all made their English language debut and this year both Kim and Park are making their returns to South Korean production. But what is most interesting is that The Age of Shadows, Kim's espionage thriller - and Warner Bros.' first South Korean co-production - is that it takes place during Japan's colonial rule of Korea as does Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and box-office success The Assassination by Choi Dong-hoon. The broader topic of general Korean-Japanese relations would include Na Hong-jin's The Wailing in this mix.
Holding the opinion that The Last Stand held the most substance for Kim Jee-woon since 2005's A Bittersweet Life speaks both to the interesting meta-textual elements of the Schwarzenegger vehicle but to the fact that while The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil were amazingly constructed, they held little of thematic substance. The latter revenge thriller was basically a retread of the same lessons of revenge Park had done three times before in remake-ready efforts (although Adam Wingard is supposedly going to remake Kim's film). The Age of Shadows however holds a surprising amount political/social concerns even if by contemporary standards (The Tunnel, Train to Busan, Pluto) it is not much at all.
The film follows Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho reuniting with Kim), a former member of the resistance who now is one of the top police officers for the Japanese. After being given the task to take down a specific section of the resistance, his path crosses with that of antique dealer Kim Woo-jin (Train to Busan's Gong Yoo). Their early interactions match the slickness of the film as both are aware of the other's intentions but allow themselves to become closer. The head of the resistance (Lee Byung-hun making an appearance), hiding in Shanghai, tells Kim Woo-jin to lay his cards on the table to Lee Jung-chool, hoping that their is still a sympathetic heart beneath the medals and Japanese fluency.
Assigned to work with Lee Jung-chool is Japanese office Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo). It's a flame under Lee's ass and sets up another layer of deceit and surveillance, one that the film enjoys stacking up as the character bounce back and forth between Korea and elsewhere, and for Lee between sympathy and duty.
At a certain point with a career such as Kim's and with a plot such as this, it's the film's set pieces that hold more value than the film as a whole. What will surely be the one if not only sequence people will talk about is the train section. While not as showy as the train stuff in The Good, the Bad, the Weird Kim arguably outdoes himself here as he has placed many chess pieces on a cramped location; the mere sight of another piece could send one flying off the handle. Kim is so flashy that he even puts a miniature set-piece within the larger one when a rendezvous in the dining car quickly becomes a standoff. Also within the train section is Kim Woo-jin's plan to find out who among his group is a double agent, the way he goes about doing this has to be one of the most engaging few minutes of the entire film. This is not to say that there is nothing of high-style before or after the train sequence; my only complaint would be that in a post-Love Exposure world let's stop with all the Bolero.
The film still finds itself to have retain a more somber, internalized tone at times, reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville. There is a certain beauty to the sense of elsewhere evoked in a quick shootout in a darkened, wooden shed. Stray bullets pass through the walls letting beams of light slip in giving us a peek of the outside as well as a peek of the more violent details happening within. This Melville quality does not forgive the lack of believability there is when it comes to Lee Jung-Chool and his swayings of conscious. It is a testament not to Kim but solely to Song Kang-ho that these inconsistencies and narrative shorthand only become noticeable after scrutinization through reminiscing.
Much like Song's character, the film itself finds it has a sentimental core from its pragmatic, cynical shell. It's a shell/center dynamic which won't become fully obvious until literally the final minutes of the film. And given the tide of this history, it's sort of a delightful surprise how Kim chooses to end it. The film is sure to go by in a breeze, being the sort of cross country tale that calls for a steady pace of excitement. It may not be as thematically rich as other recent South Korean mainstream imports, but what it does best it is miles ahead of the competition.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.