In 2015, South Korea selected Lee Joon-ik’s “The Throne” as their official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the life of the Crown Prince Sado, it was crafted around a rather sadistic premise where said prince was ultimately forced to be locked up in a rice chest until death. Unsurprisingly, the Academy snubbed the film, as they have routinely done with Korean entries in the past. This year, however, the East Asian nation may finally have a chance with Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows.” Exploring another dark period in Korea’s past, this handsomely produced spy thriller will surely prove to be more accessible and rewarding for general audiences.
“The Age of Shadows” is set during the 1920s, when Korea was under Japanese rule. A resistance movement is building, led by Kim Woo-jin, who gathers intel along with the other “comrades” to execute a special mission. But their fight for independence will be hard-won, as the Japanese police force is intent on keeping them silenced. Among their ranks is a Korean captain named Lee Jung-chool who becomes their secret weapon to infiltrate the resistance. But things get complicated as Kim Woo-jin and Lee Jung-chool become wary of each other and additional unknown informants show up on both sides. The Koreans and Japanese soon find themselves spiraling down a precarious rabbit hole, with only their fierce patriotism to cling to.
And so begins a cat-and-mouse game propelled by Lee Joon-ik’s dynamite direction. Most well known for another actioner (2010’s “I Saw the Devil”), the talented Seoul native is in fine form here, wringing every ounce of tension out of his glorious set pieces. One such sequence kicks off the action, as a troupe of Lee Jung-chool’s men track down a key resistance fighter. With Mowg’s excellent score keeping the tempo, they bound through alleyways and over rooftops and walls in seemingly choreographed formation. As Jung-chool barks his orders and they close in on our devoted patriot, you’re bound to be on the edge of your seat.
Recalling great action movies of years gone by from the likes of James Bond to “Inglourious Basterds,” Lee Joon-ik delivers several other heart-stopping sequences throughout the film (one on a train in particular). And like his meticulous protagonists, he sets up each one brilliantly, building anticipation through dialogue, vivid camerawork and dynamic pacing. It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes of riveting fun, made all the better by the strong performances and impeccable production values.
Indeed, the cast never gets lost in the shower of bullets, notably Song Kang-ho who stands out with his deeply complex performance as Lee Jung-chool. Conflicted between his allegiance to both sides, he is effectively the heart of the film. And he’s surely aided by the film’s transporting design, with artfully elaborate sets and all the trench coats, hats and elegant dresses to convey the cool glamour of the era.
The look of the film certainly captures the atmosphere of the time, leaving you wishing the film would have further cemented the sociopolitical context underpinning the “point of no return” attitude towards the violence. Though effective, the expository mission planning sandwiched between the action lacks the specificity that would have rid the film of some of its familiarity. But “The Age of Shadows” is decidedly not a fulsome history lesson, instead giving you enough double-crossings to make your head spin and eye-catching action to keep you excited for its revelatory conclusion. And like the best Hollywood action films, it successfully delivers on the pure escapist enjoyment that keeps us coming back for more.
“The Age of Shadows” is now playing in select theaters.
“The Age of Shadows” is the South Korean submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.