Korean cinema has developed certain genre expectations over the years, and those external pressures seem to dictate a lot of what gets made and distributed internationally. Violent revenge and romantic comedy seem to be the two areas that encompass much of people’s perception of Korean films thanks to break-out hits like Old Boy and My Sassy Girl having spawned dozens of hopeful imitators. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as numerous quality films have released under these generic genre banners, but it’s still nice to see Korean filmmakers moving outside those comfort zones.
Ryoo Seung-wan‘s The Berlin File doesn’t necessarily break new ground within the action/spy genre (thanks to predecessors like JSA and Shiri), but for one of the first times the action and drama takes place entirely outside of Korea.
The film follows a North Korean spy stationed in modern-day Berlin who is framed by his own agency when a deal turns deadly. He and his estranged wife, who’s also been implicated, are forced on the run with agents from both sides of the Korean peninsula chasing after them. The plot grows ever complicated, too much so unfortunately, but the action set-pieces including gunfights and hand-to-hand combat are impeccably done and exciting as hell.
Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo, The Yellow Sea) is assigned to gather intel from a deal in a Berlin hotel featuring players from the international arena including Americans, Germans and others from the Middle East. The tenuous but peaceful arms deal is interrupted, and the ensuing shootout leaves him as one of the only survivors. Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu, Shiri) is the head of a South Korean task force that had been monitoring the gathering, and having witnessed the carnage on surveillance tapes he focuses his attention on identifying and capturing Jong-seong. He’s not alone in his pursuit though as Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum), a rogue North Korean agent, is equally intent on proving that his countryman has sold out the glorious leader to their Democratic foes.
Complicating things further is the presence of Jong-seong’s wife, Jung-hee (Gianna Jun, The Thieves), who works as a translator at the Korean embassy and may be more deeply involved than her husband suspects. Toss in some Muslim terrorists, a concerned CIA agent and the recently deceased Kim Jong-il’s missing $4 billion savings account and you have the makings of a convoluted tale of intrigue, deception and bombastic redemption.
Ryoo (The Unjust, The City of Violence) directed and wrote the film, but those dueling contributions differ greatly when it comes to the movie’s successes and failures. On the downside, and as the synopsis shows, the movie is overloaded with characters, motivations and subplots destined to temporarily confuse and bewilder even the most ardent viewers. The “who’s who” of it all is clear enough, but the “why” and the “what” aren’t always as easy to pin down. Even worse, lost amidst character count is time better served by exploring Jong-seong’s broken marriage.
Much of it in fact feels like a MacGuffin to distract from the film’s core story of loyalty. Kim’s giant bank account, the Muslims making suicide vests and even the political machinations back at Communist Party HQ seem ultimately for naught. At the very least they’re not given Ryoo’s full attention. The underlying theme of loyalty is strong though between the emotionally fractured couple and between agents from a historically fractured Korea. These elements work well when allowed to exist undisturbed, but too frequently we’re thrown into dialogue exchanges that inundate us with plot details going nowhere.
Thankfully though Ryoo the director continually swoops in to focus attention back where it’s most rewarded… the action. Multiple gunfights punctuate the film with a real sense of electricity and impact, but it’s the fight scenes that really stand out here including one using unloaded pistols as the weapon of choice. The fights are beautifully choreographed, wonderfully executed by all involved and edited for maximum clarity and excitement. Having witnessed Ha’s tireless physical exploits in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea it’s no surprise to see him engaging in more brilliance here.
The Berlin File is a sharp-looking and often exciting take on the spy genre, and it benefits from Berlin’s architecture as much as it does the Cold War cloud that still hangs over the city. Sweeping camera shots, an energetic score and judiciously-used split screens all heighten the film’s thrill level, but too often the script’s exposition and character count drag it back down to earth.
The Upside: Spectacular fight sequences and solid action; Ha Jung-woo continues to master the role of emo action star; fun seeing Korean cinema move into international waters
The Downside: Plot quickly grows incredibly convoluted; intended emotional impact needed more character groundwork
On the Side: The film opened in South Korea on January 31st and hit American theaters just two weeks later thanks to new, and very welcome, distribution efforts by CJ Entertainment
The Berlin File is currently in limited release