It’s a moment to celebrate when a major South Korean film gets a UK release and from this weekend in the UK you have the opportunity to see it – as long as you live in one of a handful of major cities. When films from the revived South Korean film industry arrived in the UK from the late 1990s onwards it quickly became apparent that most of them were beautifully produced with a high level of technical skill and aesthetic understanding and that there are plenty of accomplished actors as well as skilled directors. It then quickly emerged that there were certain directors who were interested in marrying genre ideas from other cinemas with forms of Korean story-telling and aspects of Korean history and culture. Kim Jee-woon is one such director, first introduced to UK audiences with the immaculate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) and the slick gangster/crime film A Bittersweet Life (2005). Since then we’ve had releases for his ‘kimchi Western’, The Good the Bad and the Weird (2008), the hunt for a serial killer, I Saw the Devil (2011) and Kim’s American outing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (2013). There are other titles that I don’t think have made it to UK cinemas.
The Age of Shadows is at heart a ‘resistance movie’, although technically it isn’t set in wartime. Ignore all the taglines that say it is a ‘spy movie’. I watched the film on a plane, poorly screened and cut by several minutes I think (it is listed as a 140 minutes in cinemas) and I missed the credit that all the press reviewers picked up. Consequently, I struggled to place the time period. The story is based on real events – a plot by an underground resistance group to explode bombs inside a government building in Seoul during the 1920s. The Japanese had been in direct control of Korea since 1910 (and indirectly since 1876). Kim’s film goes beyond a tense thriller to embrace two major action sequences and the soul-searching drama of a central character torn between personal survival and complicated feelings of patriotism. This is Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean who has become a Captain in the Japanese Police – and who is played by the great Song Kang-ho. He must report to his Japanese commander and attempt to infiltrate the resistance group represented by two star actors, Kim Woo-jin (recently in Train to Busan (South Korea 2016) and Lee Byung-hun (seen briefly in The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)) with Han Ji-min as the female lead. Han is not really given enough to do and this, for me, seemed to be the weakest aspect of the film.
The action scenes are terrific with wonderful set design and well integrated CGI. The action ranges from Shanghai (where the resistance collect explosives) to Seoul with the excitement of the train confrontation in between. Song is very good and the narrative and his playing mean that we are never quite sure how he is going to act, torn between pragmatism and idealism. In his Sight and Sound (April 2017) review, Roger Clarke suggests that the film’s title is a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic World War Two resistance film Army of Shadows (1969). That certainly fits in the sense that Kim would surely know the film (and I’m sure he knows the Hitchcock films that might inform his train confrontation). It’s also an interesting reference to cultural exchanges after Melville’s adoption of East Asian film culture in Le samouraï (1967). It’s almost as if Kim is retrieving Melville’s borrowing. Melville is also borrowed by various Hong Kong filmmakers for gangster films (see Vengeance (HK-France 2009). But Kim may also be borrowing from Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (China/Taiwan/US 2007). I think the real force of the Melville allusion is in the torture scenes when the resistance members are captured by the Japanese. The film suddenly got serious for me at that point.
I’d love to watch the film again on a big screen where I’m sure it will look wonderful. Unfortunately the distributor Soda’s engagements seem to miss out Leeds/Bradford completely. Outside London the film is screening at the major independent arthouses such as Watershed, HOME and Showroom and various Cineworlds and Odeons. Bizarrely, however, if you live in Manchester or Sheffield, you can choose an arthouse or a multiplex but if you live in Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester or several other big cities, you are denied an opportunity. See the full list of screenings on the Soda website.