From ethics to aesthetics, espionage cinema has a soul that is as variable as it is consequential. With each new era, what was previously seen as the genre’s golden rule is questioned and debated, nowadays at a point in which certain plotlines and tried-and-tested manoeuvres have taken over almost completely – but luckily there are always honourable exceptions.
When Kim Jee-woon, one of the most important names in South Korean cinema (The Tale of Two Sisters and the morally ambiguous I Saw The Devil), began directing his latest historical thriller, The Age of Shadows, his intention was to make an almost clinical movie about the cruel world of espionage. Western classics such as 1949’s The Third Man and 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – both featuring the Cold War – were used as his references. Throughout filming The Age of Shadows, however, Jee-woon realised that his film’s era – the Japanese rule of Korea – had a totally different atmosphere. Although diverging from his starting point, he chose not to force a specific film style, and instead followed the direction of the story and its characters, enhancing the abilities of a formula that at no point lost its strength.
The film is set in the 1920s, and tells us the story of independence fighter Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a truly passionate force of intrigue and political ambiguity that finds no comfort in ideological propaganda, and his comrades who are planning to smuggle bombs from Shanghai to Seoul in order to fight the Japanese government; other fighters, such as Yeon Gye-soon and Jeon Chae-San, are convincingly portrayed by Han Ji-min and Lee Byung-hun respectively. Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-ho) is a Korean police officer that joins the Japanese forces and is tasked with infiltrating and disarming their resistance cell. Working for the Japanese was a matter of pragmatism for the police, but patriotism and decency played the final hand. In fact, The Age of Shadows is, according to its credits, ‘an original work of fiction based on historical facts’, which is an elegant way of saying its story is loosely inspired by the 1923 bombing of a Seoul police station.
From the very beginning of The Age of Shadows, we can feel the production’s grandiosity, with camerawork that seeks to free itself, a heavy atmosphere, and the sense of conflict that’s about to kick off. All of this is evident in the first ten minutes alone, even before the title frame that works as a kick-off to this pretentious but historically accurate espionage thriller.
The technical side of The Age of Shadows is wonderful in the execution of its costumes, make-up, special effects and music; everything has a level of accuracy and cleanliness that express a complex direction work with great attention to detail. The cameras provide the audience with some beautiful shots and exquisite angles that add mobility and play with the audience’s omnipresent viewpoint. The photography work is excellent as are the sequences – a personal trademark of the director’s twisted mind. However, this is also one of its weaknesses – the very rigidity that doesn’t let the film breathe to obtain the level of freedom it needs. It’s tightly controlled, not unlike a laboratory creation, every single moment timed and documented in a plotline that feels somewhat incubated.
The film’s climax is reached through a beautiful sequence of unadulterated cinematography, with Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ as its musical background, where the murky waters of betrayal and counter-betrayal manifest themselves in a masterful orchestration of tension clearly influenced by Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.
With this 2016 hidden gem, Jee-woon once again proved he can leave his mark, despite whispers of overproduction or even its arguably worst flaws – such as the movie’s length, at a whooping 140 minutes, or fondness for watertight finales that don’t leave any loose ends whatsoever. There are hints, however, that the man responsible for I Saw The Devil couldn’t reflect his preferences as they are: visceral and expressive, with a strange lyricism that’s difficult to portray at times. Although emerging for the first time in this field, his film is outstanding in its array of magnificent set pieces that display the enormous talent that South Korea has for formulating exciting action sequences. In this regard, we no longer speak solely of Jee-woon, or even great filmmakers such as Na Hong-jin (The Bell, The Wailing) or Park Chan-wook (The Vengeance Trilogy, which includes the phenomenal 2003 Oldboy); it’s sufficient to watch some minor pieces such as Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day or Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves to prove it.
According to Jee-woon, the purpose of The Age of Shadows is to ultimately explore the complexity of a time in which those who spied for the opposition and those who risked their lives to recover their country coexisted, a period when some had no choice but to become spies. It’s not a movie that seeks out who’s the spy and who isn’t, instead showing that anyone can become a spy under the right circumstances. A tale of espionage with plenty of blood and explosions, it doesn’t even require the audience to be particularly knowledgeable about the history of Japan or Korea in order for it to be enjoyable; this story of resistance to the Empire of the Rising Sun, and its maze of betrayal and infiltration, provide a good effort to please western audiences.
All images courtesy of CJ Entertainment.
The Age of Shadows will be available in UK cinemas 24th March 2017.