November 27, 2016
For the third time this year, a Korean film gets a commercial release in local cinemas. The first two ("Train to Busan" and "Tunnel") were box office hits in its home country. This third one is a little more special. It is the film South Korea selected to vie for the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Usually we need to wait for film festivals to get the chance to see such critically-acclaimed films, but this time we are seeing it on a regular run. Hope this trend continues not only for Korean films, but other foreign language films as well.
It was the 1920s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A Korean policeman named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) led the enemy drive against his own countrymen resisting Japanese rule. The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) and his comrade Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop was used to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul, tried reverse psychology to persuade Lee to help their cause instead.
I went into this film not knowing that it had a historical setting. I was not too familiar with this particular time in Korean history. However, I was aware of the suffering caused by Japanese occupations in the Philippines and other Asian countries, and how local resistance fighters desperately sought to emancipate their country from such oppressive control of the ruthless Japanese forces.
The story was not that easy to get into at first because of the confusing names and faces of the characters, as well as the unfamiliar historical circumstances. But the plot does settle into place after a few scenes and you will be completely drawn into the complex web of intrigues from intersecting interests and loyalties. This is a fascinating tale unlike other Japanese occupation films I had seen before.
All the newspaper ads promoted was that Gong Yoo, the lead star of "Coffee Prince" 10 years ago and "Train to Busan" this year, is starring in this film. How amazing it is for Gong to star in two huge films in a single year. His acting career was certainly jump-started in a big way, and internationally. His most memorable sequence here was also running around on a train, but he was trying to avoid capture by Japanese police, not zombies this time. Something happened to him at the end which I thought was medically impossible, but let's just call that creative license.
The true lead star here though was the long-respected, multi-awarded Korean actor Song Kang-ho. I have seen him perform in a number of memorable critically-acclaimed films like "Memories of Murder" (2003) and "The Host" (2006) for which he had been named Best Actor, then more recently "The Throne"(2015), also earning him Best Actor citations. Here in "The Age of Shadows" for which he had also been nominated for Best Actor, Song never made it easy for the audience to know what his conflicted character was up to, and that is what made his performance masterful. It is all about subtlety.
Byung-hun Lee is a bonafide Hollywood star now with films like "GI Joe," "Terminator Genisys" and just this year "The Magnificent Seven." In this film, his role as Che-san was small (practically a cameo), but his charisma made it remarkable. Tae-goo Um was over the top as Hashimoto, the sadistic cop with those criminally prominent cheekbones. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Korea for his floridly hateful performance here. Shingo Tsurumi was quiet but chilling as the Japanese police superior Higashi.
The last time I heard of writer-director Kim Jee-wun, it was for the multi-awarded horror flick "A Tale of Two Sisters" way back in 2003. His direction of "The Age of Shadows" was confident and assured. The cinematography was slick and glossy, as the period production design and costumes were impressive, though I thought it did go overboard with the graphic gruesome violence of torture (director's horror background resurfacing). This suspenseful historical episode was told clearly and engagingly in its 140 minutes running time, despite its multiple characters, shuttling languages (color-coded subtitles) and varied locations. 9/10.