The innovative Kim Jee-Woon films have always been characterised by a stylistic blend of film genres. A Tale of Two Sisters is recognised as one of the most influential Korean horrors ever due to its stunning visuals and challenging story, while The Good, the Bad, the Weird was not only a widespread hit but also an utterly distinctive contribution to Korean Cinema.
But it was his next film, the complicated revenge drama I Saw the Devil that really elevated Kim to an entirely different level and cemented his reputation as one of the most unique voices in cinema. The Age of Shadows marks Kim’s first Korean film in six years after his flirtation with Hollywood ended in the disappointingly received The Last Stand. Thankfully, The Age of Shadows is a return to form for the talented director and may just be his best film to date.
Set in Korea in the 1920s when the country was under the rule of the Japanese government, The Age of Shadows tells the story of Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-Ho) a Korean police captain in the Japanese police force who is given a special mission to infiltrate the armed resistance who are fighting for Korean independence. I wish all historical period dramas that are based on real life events could be directed with as much cinematic spectacle as The Age of Shadows because it really is something to behold. The film avoids all the usual trapping associated with these types of movies and instead brings its story to the screen in a highly dramatic and entertaining way.
The duality of the relationship between Lee Jung-Chool and the leader of the resistance Kim Woo-Jin (Gong Yoo) is played out with the same kind of intensity and sense of unpredictability that is often found in the best thrillers, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The film is filled with nail biting moments of tension and spectacularly realized set pieces that are enhanced by Kim Jee-Woon’s command of the camera and artistry. One of the things I find particularly compelling about Korean cinema is the capricious nature of its pacing and story beats that are often harder to predict than its American counterpart. For a film that borrows heavily from the spy genre, this cat-and-mouse story, full of deceit and high stakes is only complimented by these qualities associated with Korean Cinema.
The success of a film centred around a complex relationship between characters that stand on opposites sides of the law or ideological spectrum, is as much decided by the actors as it is by the director. Kang-Ho Song does a fantastic job as the conflicted policeman who the more he gets involved in infiltrating the resistance the more entangled his assignment seems to become. Song Kang-Ho is one of Korea’s finest actors whose film credits include Memoirs of Murder, Lady Vengeance and Snowpiercer and in many ways the success of this film hinges as much on his convincing performance as it does Kim Jee-Woon’s vision. Gong Yoo as the leader of the resistance also builds on the success of his role last year in the zombie flick Train to Busan and puts in another convincing performance in this film. While Eom Tae-goo also really stands out as the despicable Hashimoto a Japanese officer hell-bent on bringing down the resistance at all costs. It is his dastardly portrayal that provides much of the impetus for the story to keep its finely tuned tension throughout much of the film.
The Age of Shadows is a pulsating, highly entertaining film that is another worthy edition to the ever-growing catalogue of cinematic gems that Korea has produced over the last few decades. That said, it is almost too fast-paced for its own good, as for a film that has a 2 hour 20 minute run time, things move along at such a speed that by the time the credits rolled it feels like it’s just 90 minutes in. Make of that what you will but one thing I can promise is that you won’t be bored.
Originally published on March 21, 2017 for HeyUGuys.
Director and Writer: Kim Jee-Woon
Cast: Lee Byung-Hun, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-Min and Song Kang-Ho