Crafted with operatic scale and striving for an epic-ness that its subject matter necessitates, but ultimately feels overdrawn to work powerfully.
Dir. Kim Jee-woon
2016 | South Korea | Drama/Action/Thriller | 140 mins | 2.39:1 | Korean & Japanese
NC16 (passed clean) for violence
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Lee Byung-hun, Han Ji-min
Plot: Set in the late 1920s, the film follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them.
Awards: Official Selection (Venice & Toronto)
Source: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal, but may feel long
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 5 Jan 2017)
One of the more anticipated South Korean films to hit our shores from last year, The Age of Shadows is Kim Jee-woon’s feature-length return to his national cinema since the ultraviolent vengeance thriller I Saw the Devil (2010), and after his English-language debut with Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand (2013).
It dives into the exquisite period detail of the late 1920s, and the intriguing double-crossing world of spies, all set against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Seoul that would see resistance fighters for Korean independence attempt to transport explosives from Shanghai to blow up key Japanese government facilities.
Song Kang-ho plays Lee Jung-Chool, the man in the thick of bloody action and suspenseful deceit, who leads us into this dangerous world. He is at the crossroads himself—a Korean who holds a high position in the Japanese police force whose mission is to track and eradicate the Resistance.
The film will no doubt force him to take sides, but that decision is not the raison d’etre of Kim’s work. It forgoes a rich sense of history or politics for a more gleefully straightforward exercise in genre filmmaking, with his trademark dash of gory violence (those who have seen the far more explicit I Saw the Devil would find this tolerable).
“Even when we fail, we move forward. The failures accrue, and we tread on them to advance to higher ground.”
From the outset, Kim shows us the thrills you can expect in a splendid prologue action set-piece that gives the film enough energy to wade through some of its more expository segments later on. The characters are for most parts well-developed, and the acting uniformly excellent.
The pacing, however, could have been tighter, and even though the film is largely entertaining, there’s a sense that it is a good fifteen minutes too long, and feels overdrawn to work powerfully.
Nevertheless, Kim is at his best when prolonging the suspense—a brilliantly-devised set-piece in a moving train that sees the Japanese police trying to weed out resistance fighters in disguise pays homage to both Hitchcock and Tarantino.
The Age of Shadows may be crafted with operatic scale and striving for an epic-ness that its subject matter necessitates. However, it doesn’t quite achieve the grand canvas that combines style with a deeper psychological connection to its time and historicity, in a way that, for example, Melville did in what I thought was his finest film, Army of Shadows (1969), about French resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France.
The use of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ music in the climactic set-piece of The Age of Shadows is perhaps the best example of Kim’s flawed indulgence in trying to create cinematic magic, but falling short. Go watch it though, because you need your Korean fix, and this should rightly satisfy you.