THE AGE OF SHADOWS (2016)
Stellar cast combine for tense espionage thriller set in 1920s occupied Korea as a resistance movement attempts to destabilise Japanese rule
While Kim Jee-woon has established a peerless filmmaking career where he has dipped into almost every genre imaginable, he has always managed to do so with a smattering of 'Korea-ification' at every turn.
The Foul King (2000) is a wrestling film with distinctly Korean wrestlers, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) a ghost story based on a Korean folktale, while The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) is a Spaghetti Western fuelled by 1930s Korea-Japan tensions.
In The Age of Shadows, the spy genre – complete with alleyway whispers and paranoid looks over the shoulder – is given the local treatment by revisiting those period strains between Korean and Japan.
What Director Kim also bring is his characteristic lust for screen violence. This is a slightly subversive venture for the spy genre, as the subtle backstreet hits are replaced with blood-splatted executions.
Kim looks towards two of his long-term acting collaborators here in Song Kang-ho (previously working with Kim on The Quiet Family, The Foul King, and The Good, the Bad, the Weird) and Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and I Saw the Devil).
Korean police captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) is working with the Japanese colonial government to find members of the country's resistance movement. While Lee has greased his palm by helping the Japanese, the death of former classmate Kim Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon) as a resistance fighter causes him concern.
Resistance leader Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) senses that the death may have turned Lee’s head and decides to target him to change sides. Lee builds a relationship with key resistance figure Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), but it remains to be seen if Lee has come over, or instead is continuing his work for the Japanese.
As you might expect from a spy film, there are several narrative threads intertwined and the cloak-and-dagger nature of the tentative relationships makes it hard to decipher where loyalties lie.
The film unpacks the quandary of loyalty to one’s nation and personal survival during occupation. For this, Song is ideally cast. An actor so deeply relatable, we are easily transported to such a dilemma. As Song is such a physical performer, one able to explain so much with just facial expressions, we intimately understand his journey as a result.
As expectations are so high for a Kim Jee-woon film, it can be forgotten that by any standard this is a superbly crafted piece of filmmaking. Slickly directed, with glorious cinematography and a soundtrack which grips as much as the story.
While the violence may be a constant in Kim’s film, another aspect he never misses on are the action set-ups. Here, a train and then later the arriving station, provide the perfect platform for clashes between the resistance and authorities. Overall, slick and intelligent, we can all add the spy genre to the never-ending list of films that Kim Jee-woon can make.