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Age of Shadows, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Double agent, double good."
5 stars

Hearing that "The Age of Shadows" was selected as South Korea's entry for the Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film award was a bit eyebrow-raising - not only have certain other noteworthy Korean directors made well-regarded pictures this year, but filmmaker Kim Jee-woon's output, varied as it may be, is genre movies, not necessarily the sort of thing that is considered for awards, whether action, horror, or crime (all of which he has excelled at). This time around, he's making a period spy movie, and, yes, it is good enough to be right up there with the best of the year.

It starts off with a terrific opener, as Kim Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), a resistance leader in 1920s Korea, discovers that the appointment he'd made to raise money for the organization was actually an ambush, set up by former friend Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), now working for the occupying Japanese government's police force. Kim sets it up as a chamber piece, starting as a nifty procedural before pushing into suspenseful territory, and then kicking off action with a shot and then serving the audience up a fantastic chase. It's not quite the film in microcosm, but it shows a pattern that Kim will repeat throughout the film, starting off slow but then picking up speed, with composer Mowg increasing the tempo as Kim starts jumping around, cranking things up before pulling back and letting the audience be impressed by the choreography.

After that, the main story kicks in, as Lee tries to follow the trail to Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) and Jo Hwe-ryung (Shin Sung-rok), partners in an antique shop and photography studio that serves as a front for the resistence, hoping they'll lead him to Shanghai-based resistence leader Jung Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) and his "secretary" Yeon Gye-soon (Han Ji-man). They're meeting with a Hungarian explosives expert (Foster Burden), and while they all seem to despise Jung-chool, it's interesting that he bristles when his commander Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) partners him with Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), whose impulse is to pounce on every bit of information.

Gong Yoo's Woo-jin is the conventional hero of the piece, and if this were just a movie about him trying to avenge a fallen comrade while also striking at the forces occupying his country, it would be a taut, entertaining thriller. Gong captures both the charismatic daring and grim determination of this sort of secret rebel leader, playing well off a fine cast. It's great fun watching the entire group operate, capturing the nuances that make them feel like individuals who might naturally have other lives fighting for a cause rather than soldiers, getting enough out of glances and idle comments that the audience feels how close-knit the group must have become without it deteriorating into soap opera. Those little bits that make the film seem lived-in and welcoming for an audience also mean that when things shift into a more paranoid mode, the question of double-agents and moles is not academic, and Gong handles that switchover with aplomb.

Still, there's a reason why he's booked after Song Kang-ho. It is no particular secret where Lee Jung-chool's heart truly lies, although Kim holds off on that just enough to make that opening sequence a little more tense. Looked at in retrospect - even just a few scenes down the road - it becomes emblematic of how complicated the spy game can be once the two sides have an idea of what they're up against; it's almost impossible to tell who knows what about his motivations on the first viewing of the film, making any operation that involves him a matter of operating on false assumptions and hope. Song takes this and turns in a terrific performance - the bitterness Lee feels at not being trusted by his Japanese superiors despite dutiful service contrasted with occasionally-funny frustration would be great on its own, but the exhaustion and torment he feels at having to be misunderstood and hated to do a job he considers crucial is a palpable weight underneath this, as is the genuine relief in the moments when he can do what he really wants, even if he had to lie about why.

Kim plays all of this out against a gorgeous period backdrop, although one that's carefully considered. The shadows of the title are actually used somewhat sparingly, although there's generally a certain honesty to the scenes set at night, like these moments when it's hard for others to see are when the characters can be closest to their true selves. Simple, evenly-lit rooms are generally a front for something else, though a straightforward one, while busy, hyper-detailed backdrops like Shanghai and the train from there to Seoul tend to reflect the complex layers of deception going on there. Mentioning that Kim Jee-woon is putting a bunch of characters on a train will bring forth happy memories of The Good, the Bad, the Weird for many, and while this bit of action on a train has a very different feel than theset piece that opened that movie, it still demonstrates that Kim is among the best in the world at creating a big action scene that can have a dozen things going on while still being easy to follow - there are two or three jaw-droppers here and a number of other scenes that use the same skill to crank the tension higher even if they don't result in gunplay.

Some may feel that the film goes on too long after the last of these pieces, grinding on for what seems like another twenty minutes or so. In some ways, though, that downshift in pacing may be necessary; when a movie is about dangerous activities and the filmmaker is able to present the exciting, thrilling parts so well, it's incumbent to paint the ugly and drawn-out bits as well, finding the right balance between an entertaining film that grabs the audience's attention and one that gives an honest depiction of the amoral, unbearable facets of the subject. Sometimes getting both to make an impression exacts a bit of a toll.

It's one well worth paying, though, because taken as a whole, "The Age of Shadows" is a great spy movie, a worthy addition to Kim Jee-woon's already impressive filmography. If it wins up being included on the final Oscars ballot, that will be an impressive feather in its cap, but it's more than worthy of world audiences' attention on its own, and Americans who have it playing in a nearby theater should absolutely take advantage of it arriving on the big screen soon after its Korean release rather than playing catch-up in four months.

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originally posted: 09/27/16 03:34:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2016 Venice Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 02-May-2017


  DVD: 02-May-2017

Directed by
  Jee-woon Kim

Written by
  Ji-min Lee
  Jong-dae Park
  Jee-woon Kim

  Yoo Gong
  Kang-ho Song
  Ji-min Han
  Young-joo Seo
  Tae-Goo Um
  Shin Sung-Rok

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