With super slick productions increasingly coming out from South Korea, one might say that the tides are turning towards the rise of Hallyu-wood. With sharp visualisations and even sharper jawlines, the attractive aesthetics of their resources are winning audiences over, especially when it comes with finesse for refreshing classic plots.
Director Kim Jee-woon is one of those preeminent talents – having subverted the tired horror genre with the diabolical A Tale of Two Sisters, then going for the kill with the unflinching I Saw The Devil. In most of his films, he has often excelled at creating complex characters with shifting morals and murky agendas, manipulating the story with arcs that leave the audience arrested, surprised, and gaping.
In Age of Shadows, Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) is the chosen character – the defaulted Korean resistance fighter who now works as a police officer for the Japanese occupying his homeland. When his work pushes him to the frontline, facing up with his past compatriots, the assumed traitor shows sign of remorse, urging his cornered friend Kim Sang-ho (Park Hee-soon) to surrender so that he may keep his life. The agent cleanly rejects this and puts a bullet through his own head.
As the Independence Movement reveals their core group, one comprising of Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), Yun Gye-soon (Han Ji-min), Jo Hwe-ryung (Shin Sung-rok), Ludvik (Foster Burden) and their elusive leader Jeong Chae-tek (Lee Byung-hun), we get plunged into this espionage film set in South Korea in the 1920s, the stylish setting a backdrop for unspooling the current plot, where the fighters are selling antiques to fund and ship explosives from Shanghai to Seoul, in a bid to cripple the Japanese headquarters.
This plan is closely watched by the Japanese General Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi), who enlists Lee to hunt down and disrupt their plans, given his experience with the group. This sets up the conflict for the hapless Lee, who just wants to stay on the safe side of things. As an officer operating on his own, he has managed to buffer the effects of the General’s blows by surreptitiously tipping off his old friends in the movement. But he is recently assigned Detective Hashimoto (Eom Tae-goo), a zealous Japanese bloodhound who relishes the prize of seeing his enemies captured, thus complicating his double-sided efforts. This interplay between both sides presents the sustained conundrum for Lee, and the tug-of-war manipulations give Age of Shadows some enjoyably taut sequences.
Director Kim orchestrates his characters well – the strapping Gong Yoo the perfectly upright but intuitive right-hand man leading the operation; the exquisite Yun the steely feminine aid; the charismatic Lee a weary but convincing Resistance leader (if a little underused). But his key pawns played by Song and Eom, are what keeps Age compelling.
Song Kang-ho, who is on his fourth project with Kim, is a seasoned veteran of the director’s style. As his character Lee gets unwillingly drawn into both alliances – one by birth, one by choice – his unfolding journey is at times, undulating; at others, split-second jarring. Song plays his character with aplomb, with quivering moustache and confused, soulful eyes. His wavering ways keeps us baited – will he or won’t he?
His unexpected shadow, the severe Eom Tae-goo, holds his own against the heavyweight. In one of the best sequences of the film, played out on a gorgeous and lavish train set, he slithers through the cabins, trying to formulate his grand plan to nail the entire group in one swoop, one aided by a secret turncoat in the movement’s own group. This servant of Higashi is a rabid but delicious villain.
A film by director Kim wouldn’t be complete without one of his satisfying payouts. Past all the shenanigans, one of the final scenes dutifully delivers. In that sequence, slow-motion reveals, meaningful looks, symbolic objects, and paced explosions is paired with Ravel’s Bolero perfectly, delivering a message – and Lee’s final chosen loyalty – loud and clear.
South Korea’s chosen contender for Oscar’s “Best Foreign Language Film” flits successfully, shuffling loyalties in a small deck with skill, played out in a chic period offering.
First published: www.moviexclusive.com