[Herald Review] ‘Age of Shadows’ shrouded in intrigue, style

By Rumy Doo

Academy Award submission presents exhilarating mix of Korean independence movement and spy noir

  • Published : Sept 4, 2016 - 17:47
  • Updated : Sept 7, 2016 - 11:37

“The Age of Shadows” is the latest among a handful of Korean movies this year to gain international attention. After being invited to Toronto and Venice international film festivals, the film was chosen last week as Korea’s contender for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film.

Directed by Kim Jee-woon (“I Saw the Devil”), the film is a stylish noir-thriller brimming with intrigue. It also spins a Western spy-action take on the history of the Korean independence movement, which will be refreshing to some, jarring to others, but entertaining to almost all.

Gong Yoo stars as independence fighter Kim Woo-jin in "The Age of Shadows." (Warner Bros. Korea)

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the film traces an underground group of independence fighters called Euiyeoldan who hatch a plot to smuggle bombs from Shanghai into Gyeongseong, today’s Seoul, to blow up the Japanese colonial government.

The film starts out as Captain Lee Jung-chool, played by Song Kang-ho (“Snowpiercer”) and who has risen to the high ranks of the Japanese police force, is ordered to infiltrate the Euiyeoldan suspected of purchasing explosives under the cover of an antiques trade. As a pro-Japanese collaborator, Jung-chool seems predictably pragmatic, apparently defending his own interests above all else.

He tracks down the antique shop owner Kim Woo-jin, played by Gong Yoo (“Train to Busan”), a key member of the Euiyeoldan. Nothing short of gregarious on the outside, the two knowingly befriend each other: Woo-jin and his comrades are well aware of Jung-chool’s agenda and the captain, in turn, knows that they know.

Thus begins a precarious chase of spying and being spied on. Director Kim deftly captures the string of furtive glances in dark alleys, the tension regarding who to trust, and action plans that rely just as much on gut instinct as on intricate strategy.

Song Kang-ho (right) stars as pro-Japanese police officer Lee Jung-chool in "The Age of Shadows." (Warner Bros.)

The captain and the shop owner stay faithful to their guises and the rules of the game. But the cards are laid out much sooner than expected, and Woo-jin asks Jung-chool for help. There is no incentive for the officer to switch sides, and no reason for Woo-jin to trust him other than desperation and a bet that Jung-chool harbors feelings of guilt for betraying his country.

The film, however, makes the apt choice not to explain at length the characters’ motivations. Instead, it focuses on the act of spying itself -- the intrigue and the visceral judgment it entails, the choice between instinctive trust and reasonable doubt.

Uncertain of anything, the Euiyeoldan members board a train headed from Shanghai to the Korean capital, on a ride that is easily the highlight of the film. Suspense is maximized inside the confined setting. Delightfully unexpected choices of music, including Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling,” add to the film’s flair.

Once the train reaches its destination, the discreet, shadowy game comes to a close, replaced with a passionate charge toward the end goal.

Song is as exciting an on-screen presence as ever and the lifeblood of the spectacle. Gong Yoo seems too dashing and clean-cut to be someone who has laid down his life for the cause of national independence, but it works in this hyper-stylized world. Actor Um Tae-goo provides a frightful, while exaggerated, version of the sadistic Japanese officer Hashimoto; Lee Byung-hun makes a charming appearance as the Euiyeoldan leader.

“The Age of Shadows” is a modern-day old-fashioned spy flick, a web of subterfuge beneath billowing trench coats. It will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last sleight of hand.

The film is produced and distributed here by Warner Bros. Korea and distributed internationally by Finecut. It screened at the Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 2 and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9. It opens in local theaters on Sept. 7.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)