Set in Germany’s sexy capital and redolent of John Le Carre’s Cold War atmospherics, South Korean espionage thriller “The Berlin File” boasts knockout action setpieces that provide an impressive big-budget showcase for Ryoo Seung-wan’s technical smarts. Revolving around a group of multinational secret agents and their various double-crosses, the labyrinthine plot may leave some auds feeling out of their depth, but engrossing performances in a later dramatic thread propel the film to a strong climax. An instant domestic hit, the pic should be on the dossiers of distribs specializing in Asian-friendly genre ancillary following its U.S. bow.
Inspired by speculation that during the Cold War, six out of 10 people walking the streets of Berlin were spies, Ryoo has given the political paranoia of that era a topical spin, dramatizing tensions between North and South Korea under the new leadership of Kim Jung-eun. Refreshingly free of saber-rattling toward the communist regime, the pic takes much greater interest in its North Korean protags’ emotional stakes.
In Berlin’s Westin Hotel, an arms deal triggers a violent confrontation involving a Russian broker, an Arab military activist, the Israeli Mossad and North Korean operative Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo). Pyo narrowly avoids capture by South Korean agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) in a tense chase and standoff; still, Pyo is advised by North Korean ambassador Lee Hak-su (Lee Kyung-young) to watch his back, as Dong Myung-su (Ryoo Seung-bum), another top agent favored by the new powers in Pyongyang, has been dispatched to check up on him.
Surprisingly, when Dong comes knocking, it’s to hand out orders to spy on his estranged wife, Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), who is also Ambassador Lee’s interpreter. Just as Pyo struggles to make sense of Ryun’s alleged treason without betraying his homeland, Jung also faces a career trap engineered by his self-interested boss, Kang (Choi Mu-seong). As Jung continues to probe the botched arms deal and its link to a murkier conspiracy, he gets back on Pyo’s trail again.
The convoluted storytelling lends the film’s first half the feel of an unusually bumpy car ride, assaulting auds with a barrage of intelligence data and forcing them to keep all the characters straight amid much chaotic crosscutting. One can see helmer Ryoo striving to match the globetrotting excitement of the “Bourne” series, while also paying homage to the taut style of ’70s political thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor.”
Unfortunately, the narrative exertions only expose the story’s plotholes, and comprehension is further hindered by the Korean cast’s unsubtitled and unintelligible English dialogue. Fortunately, Choi Young-hwan’s lensing casts attractive, touristy Berlin sights and Latvian outdoor locations in a gritty light that blends seamlessly with the hardboiled action.
A turning point occurs at the 53-minute mark, when impending danger leads Pyo and Ryun to realize the depth of their love for each other; with one light caress and a few meaningful glances, Ha and Jun register their characters’ passion to moving effect. As the narrative tightens to focus on Pyo, Ryun, Jung and Dong, the action assumes greater urgency, notably in a suspenseful escape sequence full of stunning leaps and falls. Following several large-scale gunfights, the pic’s climactic hand-to-hand combat scenes are marked by the visceral rawness that distinguishes Ryoo’s best works, such as “Crying Fist” and “City of Violence.”
The casting of Han has a nostalgic effect, as it recalls his title role as a secret agent in the landmark 1999 Korean spy thriller “Shiri.” There’s greater moral ambiguity to his role here, but it’s noticeable only in the latter half, when the actor tones down his nervy bluster and starts to generate real chemistry with Ha, who in turn brings increased intensity to his initially cool, inscrutable performance. Jun’s turn is the most compelling of the bunch, tempering her character’s extreme duress with quiet restraint. The helmer’s brother Ryoo Seung-bum has a strong physical presence, especially when he’s not talking.
Tech credits are uniformly excellent.