Director Jee-woon Kim returns with The Age of Shadows, and does so in reassuringly confident style after the mishap that was The Last Stand. This historic genre-blender looks back at the Japanese colonisation of Korea, and the actions of the resistance movement trying to loosen their overseers grip on the country. Kim is in familiar but not too comfortable territory here, while also working with a number of familiar faces many fans of South Korean cinema will recognise.
This is a story of agents and double-agents, intel, counter-intelligence and more. For fans of Jean-Pierre Melville's French spy films of the 60s, it is hard not to draw obvious comparisons with Army of Shadows and its title. That is the easy start point, as are the similarities found between the tales of men and women fighting for freedom. However, where Melville's films spiralled into bleak, even nihilistic portrayals, Kim has no interest in doing the same. Instead by bringing together drama, action, tension and short stabs of comedy, he illustrates his mastery of merging multiple genres into a cohesive whole.
Police Captain Lee Jung-Chool (the always great Kang-ho Song) is the man wrestling with his conscience throughout these two and a half hours, charged by his seniors to infiltrate and bring down the resistance from the inside. A murky past of selling out his own Korean countrymen to the Japanese is well known to both sides of the battle. Che-San (charismatically played as ever by Byung-hun Lee) leads the underground fighters and senses Lee can be flipped once more to support their cause, thus starting the subtle cat and mouse games between the two sides. Lee's superior officers only just about trust him themselves and pair him with brutal detective Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) whose menacing aura casts an eye over his partner.
Also starring is Gong Yoo, seen more recently in Train to Busan, playing Kim Woo-jin, a pivotal character in the resistance. He is a sincere man dedicated to the fight against the Japanese and winning over Lee. The centrepiece of the film takes place on a long train ride where both sides are brought together in cramped, tense conditions. This is where Kim really shows his strength, building towards a brilliantly crafted showdown in the restaurant carriage. Up until that point we are working from the perspectives of Lee, Woo-jin and Hashimoto and when they are finally brought together in one place, the results may be rapid but are far from disappointing.
Kim always has great attention to detail and the time taken to create this world is plainly obvious. Costume and set design is superb and the 1920s time period feels genuinely realised. What can prove difficult to decipher in the first act is establishing exactly who each person is and what side of the fight they are meant to be on. As all the double crossing zips by, it becomes a little tangled and you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling a little lost. Character motivations and identities become clearer after that but there is a danger the film may have lost some of its viewers by then.
This is also a new venture for Warner Bros into the Korean film industry, the first time they have funded a home made project in the country. We have seen similar collaborations recently with China and The Wall, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Thankfully, this is a much more credible film, one that is well paced and engaging, made by a confident director and supported by a strong cast. While the story is one inspired by events, rather than being historically retold, it covers a difficult point in Korean history that remains surprisingly relatable to the country today.
Fans of the director and cast won't be disappointed by this exciting slice of Korean history