Korea’s first ever big budget blockbuster is a star-studded North vs South high-octane action thriller
As Korea awoke from a period of more modest economic prosperity, the film industry in the late 90s finally had the budgets to produce the expensive action films previously the domain of the US.
The first such realisation of this aim was Shiri – which cost around an eye-watering US$8.5m to make – a film heavily inspired not just by Hollywood, but also the action films of Hong Kong.
Thrown in with the risk factor of a big budget and attempt to make a film to rival the genre in more developed international markets was the thorny issue of Korean reunification as its central storyline.
For longer term fans of Korean cinema, it saw the mouth-watering prospect of Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) playing an army commander from the North versus Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, Parasite) and Han Suk-kyu (Green Fish, Christmas in August) as agents in the South.
Set in 1992, a group of super soldiers in North Korea led by their commander, Park Mu-young (Choi), are undergoing a brutal training regium ahead of being sent to the South as sleeper agents.
The pick of the bunch is a female sniper called Lee Bang-hee (Yunjin Kim), who will progress to assassinate several key figures in the South over the coming years.
Six years later in South Korea and special agents Yu Jong-won (Han) and Lee Jang-gil (Song) are charged with tracking down Bang-hee. During this process, the pair discover that the assassins from the North are looking to acquire CTX, a liquid explosive developed by the South’s government.
The race is now on to find the assassins from the North before they acquire the CTX, but the chase is compromised by an insider who seems to be leaking information to the on-the-run assassins.
This all leads towards a dramatic final face-off at a packed Seoul football stadium amidst fears of assassinations and a CTX-fuelled terror attack.
There is a nostalgic joy to witnessing the birth of the modern Korean action film, but there are some technical distractions which chip away at the overall success of the film’s delivery.
One such aspect is the overuse of that action staple of the time – the ‘shaky cam’. A lust from directors to ensure every moment of action is accompanied by a constant shake, an effect which mainly induces some measure of nausea.
There is also a mole-in-our-midst twist that is a little too on-the-nose and obvious to land. Despite those misses, a complete understanding of Korean cinema cannot be truly achieved without a watching of Shiri.
A box office sensation on its release, it was a forerunner to Korea establishing itself as the home of some truly excellent action films that rely less on those direct US and Hong Kong influences.
There is still plenty of enjoyable action and the Choi-Song-Han axis ensures that the performances are developed enough to carry the film to somewhere meaningful.