By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
This has been a year for Korean master directors returning to familiar territory after debatably successful forays into English language films, and the Korean independence struggle against the Japanese seems to be a hot subject matter. Recently, we saw the release of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a steamy sex thriller set in this time period following Stoker, but earlier Kim Jee-woon, whose The Last Stand debuted the same year, beat him to that punch.
You remember this one, right?
The Age of Shadows is no sex thriller, though, but rather a spy film that sees Song Kang-ho play a sympathizer Japanese policeman who may just be open to the advances of the Korean resistance movement, led by a passionate Yoo Gong and hard-drinking Lee Byung-hun, if his sadistic Japanese partner Um Tae-goo doesn’t get in the way of his potential double agency.
Released from his temporary Hollywood shackles, Kim Ji-woon again proves he’s one of Korean cinema’s top stylists, and this film has style to spare- from gritty, lived-in production design and costuming to the gory practical effects that punctuate the film’s sudden and brutal streaks of violence.
Frequent collaborator and DP Kim Ji-yong’s cinematography is full of, ahem, light and shadow, using more muted, but rich colors, and texture to spare. Together the Kims orchestrate more than this type of film’s usual quota of slam-bang setpieces, especially a protracted and nail-biting mid-film train sequence and two scenes of soldiers swarming in on resistance fighters that tighten the noose on audience and character alike.
In some ways the film is a series of setpieces tied together by a convoluted plot full of double crosses and more than a few surprises and shocks, which largely work quite well. As always with top-notch Korean cinema, there’s an odd yet effective mix of tones between surprising comedy, body horror, crackling action, and actor-sold drama. The Age of Shadows is not as much of a tightrope as The Wailing, but Kim still wields impressive control- you can’t help but be swept up in the emotions he wants you to feel scene to scene, in no small part due to the main trio of actors. Song Kang Ho is world-class, as good of an actor as is working in the world today, Gong, who just broke out in this year’s smash hit Train to Busan, is affecting, and Um’s villain is over the top, but very entertainingly/skin-crawlingly so. You can’t really ask for better execution in any technical facet of the film.
Man, the line between terrorism and patriotism is a fine one… but Axis powers are Axis powers, so you can forgive a lack of nuance and a surfeit of jingoism for the most part in this case.
Nazi-murdering is as wholesome a pastime as baseball, after all.
However, I also found the plot, which has enough runtime-bloating convolutions to make you think it’s more clever than you are as it loses you at first, to rely a bit on transparently bad character choices to drive conflict and forward motion at times, unfortunately. SPOILER ALERT, but why did the Japanese free *him* at all? They had precisely zero incentive to do so if a fragment of doubt about his loyalty remained, which it sure as hell should have, and they fully knew only two people were in that cabin with the explosives… seems lazy.
The Age of Shadows is yet another handsomely-mounted, exhilaratingly shot and plotted genre film from the country fast becoming the master of the form, South Korea.
The Age of Shadows (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Sip: every time a character takes a drink (drop in scale very intentional)
Take a Drink: for main character deaths
Take a Drink: whenever the Maltese Falco- err, Buddha statue shows up
Do a Shot: for slapping (one shot per scene, not per slap, because… you’ll see)
Do a Shot: for the toe