The Age of Shadows seems to operate on two fronts, the first as a war epic—both sweeping and compact—of chases, gunfights and espionage, used as much for dramatic interplay as it is cloak and dagger. The second is a melodrama of collective guilt between two men who battle it out on opposite sides of a Japanese-Korean conflict. Kim Jee-woon is one of the forerunners of South Korean cinema, he’s ventured into similar categories of baroque genre fare with the slickly produced The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and has even dabbled in the depraved with I Saw the Devil (2010), an anomalous masterpiece of deconstructionist revenge and reactionary schadenfreude.
Shadows follows a similar tradition of early “resistance” movies (Kim’s title is a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows). It’s fraught with police checkpoints, criminal interrogation and every other element that identifies it as a resistance film, but it possesses none of the battle-worn realism of The Battle of Algiers (1966) or the contextual authority of The Train (1964). Instead, Kim Je-woon thrives primarily on the confidence he places in his set-pieces and white-knuckle narrative, while totally embracing the simple but powerful political sentiment at the film’s core.
Age of Shadows opens with the chase, and subsequent suicide, of a resistance fighter by a force of Japanese-allied Korean soldiers. The construction of the scene itself is something to be admired; the storming of the peddler’s shop (choreographed in glorious tandem), battalions running along the gabled rooftops and pulpy gunfights work to a lavishly produced and beautifully choreographed opening hook that establishes not only the film’s social conflict but the protagonists’ personal one. The moral revelation of the Korean police captain with blood on his hands is vital to the film’s transition from middlebrow espionage to quick-witted character study.
Yet, neither that one scene or the film itself can be described as either compelling or argumentative. Its focus is way too fixed on one side of the conflict and it’s sentiment is too on hell-bent in supporting the underdog. But Kim’s refusal to comprise to the sympathies of both sides work to better understand the patriotism and resolve of the film’s assigned “heroes”, and their refusal to compromise to the occupation of Japanese imperialism. You might think Kim Je-woon is being too biased, but history’s always been written by the winners and Japan (like all of history’s colonial overlords) just happened to be on the wrong side of it.
The police captain is Lee Jung-Chool (played by the always fierce Kang-so Song). His cushy, steadfast position under Japanese rule is challenged after confronting someone willing to die for the self-determination of Korea, a movement he once supported. This plunges Lee into an odyssey into Shanghai where he goes undercover to infiltrate the remaining, active resistance members. What happens next is less a game of cat and mouse and more a test of will. Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, who stars in another stellar South Korean film this year), Lee’s primary contact in the resistance, is a man who bears both the physical and psychological capacity to kill or die for his cause.
Naturally, their conversations are duplicitous and misleading, but there’s always an underlying truth to their words that both men understand. It speaks to a social identity both men share, marred into bitter hatred by Japanese intervention. It seems obvious that by removing the barriers keeping these men on opposite ends of the law they’d make great friends. However, neither man ends up playing into the other’s hands, their conflict transcends allegiances and politics and becomes a study in the dynamics which shape brotherhoods. All of it culminates in a phenomenal mid-film train sequence that proves stupendously potent as a thriller of heists, confidence games and, yes, even a shootout. No previous film of Kim Je-woon demonstrates more virtuoso in his craft for generating in suspense. He turns the train—already a claustrophobic environment—into a throat gripped in an ever-tightening stranglehold.
Kim plays his characters against a backdrop of revolution, showing more interest in his conviction as a storyteller than in any insight the subject might invoke. I don’t say that to criticize the film, however, The Age of Shadows is less a study of culture and history than it is an opera of high-stakes emotion, where the rules applied only follow a poetic doctrine. The film’s plot is labyrinthine and almost inscrutable, but Kim Jee-woon relays information in a fast, mechanical productivity. Whatever your opinion might be on his choice of style, you can’t deny its effectiveness. Every edit, cut or shot is made with quick and maximum efficiency. Even as the plot tightens, he’ll always remind you what’s at stake and show no qualms in doubling down on an expository montage just to make sure when the moment comes you’ll feel its true impact head-on.
The action in The Age of Shadows is heavily emphasized and over-the-top (just as it is with previous films) but it fits wholesomely with the film’s hyper-dramatic tone. One of the things we can take for granted in a film of this scale, especially when we try to pinpoint errors and aesthetic incongruences, is how convincing Kim Je-woon makes the film even despite of its histrionic approach to warfare and politics. A police checkpoint can turn into a brawl of fists and blades—resembling something John Woo would direct—and actually work. And it’s not because of some holistic awareness of the action movie format but because Kim Je-woon knows how to effectively set-up emotion and drama, and also how to effectively respond to it.
Of course I also have to credit a great deal of the film’s “convincing-ness” to actors Kang-so Song and Gong Yoo, who bring to the movie some of their most confidently understated work—which is exceptional considering how commonly showy and impassioned performances in Korean films are. Shadows is one of the longer action mvies this year, running at 140 minutes, but it feels remarkably frugal and economic never wasting a moment outside plot progression. Kim Jee-woon’s latest film, produced by Warner Brothers, is a late-September relief in a month replete with great directors, high hopes and languishing disappointments.