The Age of Shadows, 2016.
Directed by Kim Jee-woon.
Starring Lee Jung-chool, Um Tae-goo, Yoo Gong, Byung-hun Lee, and Han Ji-min.
Set in the late 1920s, The Age of Shadows 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. A talented Korean-born Japanese police officer, who was previously in the independence movement himself, is thrown into a dilemma between the demands of his reality and the instinct to support a greater cause.
Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows sees the prolific South Korean director return to his homeland for a brand new action thriller following his brief 2013 excursion to Hollywood for the Arnie comeback vehicle, The Last Stand. The director – who is legendary among aficionados of Asian genre cinema after a handful of masterpieces in A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil – has a knack for delivering the kind of violent, adrenaline-fuelled action Hollywood rarely provides, and his latest effort is yet another showcase of his excellence.
Taking place in the 1920s amid the Japanese occupation of South Korea, The Age of Shadows is a rousing tale of espionage and rebellion, which sees a conflicted police captain Kang-ho Song (Lee Jung-chool) playing a double agent between his employers and the freedom fighters who want to reclaim their country. When the rebels ask the Kang-ho to help them gain safe passage from Shanghai with boxes full of artillery, he’s caught in a dilemma: does he follow his head (and wallet) and do the law’s work? Or, does he follow his heart and help an admirable cause? With young agent Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) by his side at all times, a cat-and-mouse game begins, and Kang-ho is at the centre of it.
Those who are unfamiliar with Japanese-Korean history might find themselves thrust into an environment that’s difficult to follow initially. (The Occupation lasted between the years 1910-1945). However, the film does an excellent job of filling in the blanks sufficiently enough without overloading us down with historical exposition. From the get go it’s evident that it’s a tale of an uprising seeking to overthrow corrupt authority figures, which is a timeless cinematic adventure we’ve experienced countless times before. That said, very rarely are they this breathtaking – The Age of Shadows is perfect execution of familiar tropes, carried by a hardboiled, robust protagonist with some questionable morals.
South Korea’s lineage of visceral thrillers is unparalleled. Films like the Vengeance trilogy and Memories of Murder propelled the country’s cinema to international acclaim at the turn of the 21st century, and directors like Jee-woon have since gone on to deliver efforts which exemplify the genre at its finest. The Age of Shadows isn’t as sinister as I Saw the Devil or exciting as A Bittersweet Life, but it’s his most ambitious to date in terms of storytelling scope. The film is also quite politically-charged, imbued with the anti-Japanese sentiment that’s evident in aspects of Korean society to this day, with a finale inspired by true events (which I won’t spoil).
However, the film’s political undertones don’t come at the expense of the entertainment it provides, and for 140 minutes it’s an engaging and the very definition of an ‘epic.’ If you’re a fan of Jee-woon’s work already then you’ll find The Age of Shadows to be very satisfying – perhaps even one of his best – and I suspect that it will appeal to newcomers due to its commercial sensibilities. That’s not to say it’s a tame effort, but it’s far from the most extreme or shocking thriller to emerge from the Land of the Morning Calm. Overall, I highly recommend seeking it out – especially if you’re seeking something with more to it than the average fare being churned out by Hollywood.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★