It isn’t rare these days to see a film that bears the burden of ‘based on real events’, especially when you probably already know about the story from the news in some shape or form before the film hits the screens. But it is rare for a Korean spy thriller to. A big hit in it’s home country, South Korea, ‘The Age of Shadows’ did make an impact in the West, critically at least, winning over audiences who managed to catch it on the big screen. But as with all ‘said to be brilliant’ World Cinema films, ‘The Age of Shadows’ wasn’t given the time it deserved to be seen by more people.
Set in 1920s Seoul while Korea was under Japanese occupation, a group of Resistance fighters struggle to bring explosives and a foreign expert to the city to destroy key Japanese buildings in Seoul. At first police Captain Lee Jung-chool who is part of the task force hunting the members down pursues them but later it becomes clear where his loyalties lie, with his fellow Koreans under the oppression of Japan. With a change of heart, double-crossing with the resistance and bloody death, regrets and redemption the film holds up as a brilliantly but not so carefully woven tale about spies and essentially doing what is right.
There are stand out sequences in the film that build the most tension, mainly on the train from China to Korea. The resistance are scattered throughout the train is different classes and no one is calm. The air is thick with smoke and uncertainty forcing you to wait for the lingering looks from the police as they check each passenger. A train carriage bar stands in for the traditional setting on Western films where a confrontation is made and the expectation that it’s all over. But it is at the destination station where everything sudden happens with a bloody shoot out and an unexpected feeling of instant regret for one character.
It is easy to compare the film to more well know films of its genre such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Lives of Others but The Age of Shadows, formally known as ‘Secret Agent’, has a different kind depth. Like every spy genre film, there is a set up, betrayal, turning the enemy, ultimate betrayal, revenge and usually a big event or in this case an explosion. The story shows a fictionalized version of events leading up to a real event, the bombing of police headquarters in 1923. Each character has a purpose as well as fighting for independence but they somehow still fill a stereotype at the same time.
With a mix of typical genre tropes, amazing settings and a story that seems fresh but only because no one in the West knows about the real story and the real people involved, the film still has an impact and should be included in the great spy genre film list and not just ‘action/thriller’.
Dir: Kim Jee-woon
Prd: Choi Jeong-hwa
Scr: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Loo, Han Ji-min, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi
DoP: Kim Ji-yong
Running Time: 140 minutes
The Age of Shadows is out now on DVD/Blu-ray