The irresistible pull of a spy thriller, the heightened stylishness of a 1920s setting, and terrific technical specs make “The Age of Shadows” an unabashed delight. Korean director Kim Jee-woon (“The Last Stand,” “I Saw the Devil”) surpasses himself, returning to the screen after a three-year hiatus with an electrifying double-agent drama loosely based on the clandestine fight between South Korean resistance fighters and the country’s Japanese occupiers. Unfolding in classic action style, this rousing gem has everything one wants for an evening’s entertainment: no wonder South Korea chose it for its Oscar candidate. “Shadows” is destined to be a local sensation with strong international legs.
The first of several stunning set-pieces comes during the opening minutes, when resistance fighter Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon) is betrayed by a mole and surrounded by Japanese police, led by Captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho). Exciting camerawork captures the chase, with seemingly an entire platoon in expertly choreographed movement jumping from roof to roof across Cho Hwa-sung’s striking sets, until Jan-ok is cornered. Jung-chool, a former classmate of Jan-ok but now working for the other side, wants to bring him in alive, but he’s denied his prize.
Chief Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) tasks Jung-chool with tracking down the resistance leaders, who are buying explosives from Hungarian anarchists (yes, this really is based on fact) by trafficking in antiques. Following a lead, the captain goes to the antiquities shop of Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), who turns on the charm – which he has in spades – as the two men size each other up, fully aware that the game of cat and mouse has begun. Level-headed Jung-chool knows the best way to expose the rebels is by quiet subterfuge, but he’s being paired with hot-tempered Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), who’s suspicious that the captain’s Korean blood makes him untrustworthy.
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Present-day Japanese nationalists of the Prime Minister Abe type will cry foul with the over-the-top stereotyping that forms the entirety of Hashimoto’s character, but he’s a gleefully evil nemesis, and if it’s OK to make one-dimensional fiends of movie Nazis, why not the same for Japanese occupiers, whose historical record in Korea hardly invites positive depictions. Woo-jin suggests Jung-chool meet him in Shanghai, ostensibly to look at his pottery factory, though in reality resistance fighters are heading to China to buy explosives. The two men are engaged in a dangerous dance, but if there’s a way of locating a shred of national pride in turncoat Jung-chool’s soul, then maybe the resistance will have found its most valuable infiltrator.
What 1920’s-set spy film would be complete without a train? Director Kim delivers the goods: he’s crafted one of the best train sequences in recent memory, shifting between characters and classes with consummate skill as a distrustful Hashimoto tries to ferret out Woo-jin and his associates, who are smuggling explosives back to Korea. Yang Jin-mo’s tightly controlled editing keeps tension high enough to break into a cold sweat, maintaining a guessing game in which no one, least of all the audience, knows what Jung-chool will do, nor who the stool pigeon is who’s tipped off Hashimoto to the train’s combustible contents.
While the train sequence is the film’s indisputable highlight, a number of other scenes come close to that sequence’s bravado. This being a Kim Jee-woon film, audiences should expect a fair share of stomach-turning, eye-averting moments, and while not of the same unbearable intensity as “I Saw the Devil,” they still pack a wallop, such as when resistance fighter Yeon Gye-soon (Han Ji-min) is tortured. There’s not an ounce of fat on “The Age of Shadows,” which is based on the 1923 bombing of Japanese police headquarters in Seoul without feeling at all enslaved to facts. If anything, the film is most indebted to classic cloak-and-dagger movies, in which sharp, richly succinct dialogue and plenty of atmosphere seem effortlessly carried along by the force of magnetic personalities.
Those in the attractive cast are all top-notch, though naturally the lion’s share of praise goes to Song (“Snowpiercer”) and Gong (“Train to Busan”) – the former for his delicate balance of loyalties as he realizes he’s being played, and the latter for his easy charm wrapped around determination. Visually the film offers numerous pleasures in terms of atmospheric set-pieces and masterful lensing by Kim Ji-yong. Especially exciting is the use of music to ratchet up tension, first noticeable with simple percussion, then later Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” and finally, in the climactic scene, a breathtakingly clever use of Ravel’s overused “Bolero” – it’s quite an achievement to make that old war-horse feel fresh.