You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Age of Shadows’

Cult director Kim Jee-woon delivers the goods with an ultra-stylish cloak-and-dagger actioner set in 1920s Korea, under the Japanese occupation.

Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4914580/reference

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.

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.

Film Review: 'The Age of Shadows'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), September 1, 2016 (also in Toronto – Special Presentations). Running time: 140 MIN. (Original title: “Miljeong”)

Production: (South Korea) A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Grimm Pictures, Warner Bros. Korea production, in association with Harbin Films. (International sales: Finecut, Seoul.) Produced by Kim Jee-woon, Choi Jae-weon. Coproducers, Choi Jeong-hwa, Lee Jin-sook.

Crew: Directed by Kim Jee-woon. Screenplay, Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae. Camera (color, widescreen), Kim Ji-yong. Editor, Yang Jin-mo.

With: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Judi Dench

    Judi Dench Says Works by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey Should Be Respected

    Veteran British star Judi Dench has said that the work produced by Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey should be separated from the offenses they are alleged to have committed. Both Weinstein and Spacey face charges of sexual assault in the U.S., which they deny, and have been investigated in other jurisdictions as well, including Britain. [...]

  • Karlovy Vary Honorees

    Karlovy Vary Fetes Julianne Moore, Patricia Clarkson, Vladimir Smutny

    The Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival Honorees JULIANNE MOORE, Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema An actress, author and activist, Moore has long earned accolades on her diverse career path. The North Carolina native won a Daytime Emmy with her first major TV role on the soap opera “As the World Turns,” [...]

  • CLOSE QUARTERS – In Disney and

    Korea Box Office: ‘Toy Story 4,' ‘Aladdin’ Share Weekend

    Two Disney releases, “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin” ruled the weekend box office in Korea. Opening on Thursday, “Toy Story 4” earned $8.54 million from 1.12 million admissions over its four opening days. The animated family adventure film accounted for 32% of the country’s total weekend box office. May release “Aladdin” slipped to second from [...]

  • Lendita Zeqiraj Agas House Movie

    Karlovy Vary Embraces New Voices From the East

    When Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s East of the West competition opened to submissions from the Middle East two years ago, festival artistic director Karel Och noted it was “about time to abandon the political definition of the ‘East of the West’ countries,” long determined by the geographical boundaries hemming in the former Soviet bloc. Though [...]

  • Let There Be Light Movie Marko

    Tough Competition in Spa Town Festival

    When the curtain rises June 28 on the 54th edition of the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, there will be a conspicuous absence among the 12 titles selected for the main competition: Czech directors. It’s just the second time this decade that the host country has failed to field a single entry in competition, a [...]

  • Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar

    Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” has rounded out its cast, with veteran actors Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp among the stars signing on for the latest movie from the “Baby Driver” director. Stamp can currently be seen in Netflix hit “Murder Mystery” with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Rigg’s recent roles include Olenna Tyrell [...]

  • Zhang Zhao LeEco film

    Zhang Zhao, Chief of Le Chuang (Formerly Le Vision Pictures), Resigns

    Zhang Zhao, the chairman and CEO of Le Chuang Entertainment, formerly known as Le Vision Pictures, has resigned for “personal reasons,” the firm said.    Zhang’s resignation was announced in a statement posted to the firm’s official social media account Monday, which thanked him for his service. “Le Chuang will carry on as before, using [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content