AKA: Secret Agent
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Cast: Goo Uoo, Song Kang-Ho, Han Ji-Min, Um Tae-Goo, Shin Sung-Rok, Seo Young-Joo, Lee Byung-Hun, Shingo Tsurumi, Heo Sung-Tae, Kim Dong-Young
Running Time: 140 min.
By Martin Sandison
I remember going to see Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life back when it came out, and thinking: This is something special. An artistic aesthetic, but with populist entertainment at its heart. I then saw The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and here was the apotheosis of his approach. Finally, his masterpiece, I Saw The Devil, veered into a dark, but ultimately rewarding territory. Unfortunately, his American effort, The Last Stand, sanitised much of what had gone before, despite the fact it was a fun watch. Now, Kim is back in South Korea with his most lavish production to date, one that carries on his vision, but also falls short in some areas.
Screening in the Glasgow Film Festival, Age of Shadows benefits from a big screen viewing, not least because of the riveting action scenes. Also the movie features some of the best male Korean acting talent with Song Kang Ho, Gong Yoo and Lee Byung Hun (in a cameo appearance) all sharing the screen.
Song plays Lee Jung-chool, a high ranking officer who has defected from the Korean resistance and takes his orders from Japanese overlords. Song finds himself being pulled back in to the resistance thanks to circumstance, his conscience and resistance fighters Che-san (Lee Byung Hun) and Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo). They both manipulate him into helping them, and thus sets in motion a plot with plenty of twists and turns.
With the bravura opening scene, Kim sets out his stall; action choreographed with the eye of a genius and complex character design conveyed through this activity. The show-stopping set pieces on show some of the most intricately designed in recent history, and make a case for Kim being THE action filmmaker of our time. What makes them special is the combination of tension, technique and character depth within each sequence. The centrepiece scene is on a train, and it is so crammed with the above, it bursts at the seams.
Gong Yoo shows much more acting chops than a pretty one-note performance in Train to Busan, with more noteworthy scenes, especially towards the end. Song Kang Ho proves yet again he is one of the best leading actors in the business, and tackles the development of his character with aplomb. Despite being a glorified cameo, Lee Byung Hun’s role is a pivotal one with his charisma intact. A mid-film scene, featuring all three is glorious, as they drink from a seemingly neverending barrel of wine – in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have been the best thing about the movie; Kim handles each character and situation with such mastery that there are numerous stand out scenes. Special mention goes to Um Tae-Goo as Hashimoto, in a seriously creepy and physical performance as one of the Japanese officers. However, there are a couple of Western actors in small roles who come close to Hong Kong movie levels of terrible acting.
The gloss of the film can be a bit stifling at times (it’s the first Korean Warner Brothers co-production), with little edge compared to Kim’s greatest work, I Saw The Devil. Also, the opening half hour is pretty hard to follow, with multiple characters introduced and plot strands piling up.
The Age of Shadows certainly is an exhilarating ride, and has some thematic and historical depth. This approach is one reason why South Korea is making some of the best movies at the moment, and long may it continue.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10