A scene from "Age of Shadows" / Courtesy of Warners Bros.
By Park Jin-hai
Among a slew of recent films set during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), director Kim Jee-woon's new espionage movie "The Age of Shadows" clearly stands out.
The film tells the story of a Korean-born naturalized Japanese police officer Lee Jeong-chul, played by seasoned actor Song Kang-ho, who becomes friends with the leader of a freedom fighting group called Uiyeoldan to get information about the group's bombing plans against the Japanese authorities.
The film is Warner Bros.' first Korean-language production and is a strong contender for a foreign film Academy Award. Kim's latest work bears all the hallmarks of his cinematic esthetics and places it in a league of its own.
From the opening sequence, where the camera dynamically follows a chase and gun-fight between Japanese police and an independence fighter, to a highlight action sequence on a train, the film reminds viewers of Kim's acclaimed 2008 film "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," while the beautifully colored mise-en-scene of the film reminds the audience of the director's earlier mystery thriller "A Tale of Two Sisters."
Unlike the other occupation-period films, which intentionally strike the chord of nationalism and patriotism, the "Age of Shadows," while dealing with the independence movement, doesn't portray a role of strictly good and bad, or us against them.
Instead, it adopts the double-agent device to depict a world of uncertainty as the poster states, "The enemy has always been within," and reveals the thin and blurry line that separates the traitor from the freedom fighter.
Protagonist Lee, based on the controversial real-life figure Hwang Ok, a Korean-born Japanese officer, who was arrested in 1923 for his alleged involvement in a bomb plot led by Uiyeoldan, is cleverly portrayed by Song.
Song, who became the first Korean member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year, portrays Lee not as a notorious and cold-blooded betrayer but as an ordinary secular and shaky person who acts based on the situation he has found himself in during the turbulent times.
As a former leader of the independence movement who became a Japanese police officer chasing down his former friend, Lee shows his inner guilt throughout the movie. At the same time he warns that "I don't know who I will be the next time (I meet you)" to the secret request of becoming a double-agent by the independence fighters.
For a spy thriller, however, the movie plot is rather loose. Lee has became a double agent with few reasonable explanations which tends to fizzle out the thrill of the movie a little too early and prevents viewers from feeling empathy with the character.
What saves the film is the great acting of the two protagonists Song and Gong Yoo. Song depicts a multi-layered character, while Gong Yoo acts the part of a soft but charismatic freedom fighter in detail. The force of actor Lee Byung-hun, who plays the leader of Uiyeoldan, is significant, despite his short appearance. As the director said, the movie starts with depicting the historical pains of the tumultuous times, but ends leaving a long aftertaste about shaky and fragile characters who are destined to live out the lives they are faced with. This is something that we can relate to living today.
"The Age of Shadows" has a 140-minute running time and will hit the local theaters on Sept. 7.