By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
I live in Korea, Korean film is experiencing a Golden Age, Song Kang Ho is a pimp, yadda, yadda, yadda. If you’ve been reading my Korean film reviews you know the drill.
One does not say no to Song Kang Ho
The boil it way down, The Berlin File is Korea’s answer to The Bourne Identity, but he’s North Korean. No, he doesn’t have amnesia, but Pyo (the ubiquitous Ha Jung-woo) is a highly trained international espionage badass embedded in the Korean embassy in Berlin on an arms deal, who finds himself under scrutiny not just from South Korea and the U.S., but also abandoned by his own country. He’s forced to flee with his wife Jeonghee (Gianna Jun) from all parties, especially ruthless NK assassin Dong (Ryu Seung-beom) and find out who betrayed him.
First off, here’s a toast to a North Korean movie character that isn’t a giant evil caricature.
One of the more human North Koreans on the screen so far
Sure, they’re easy to take pot-shots at, but the North Korean mindset taken from a dramatic, realistic perspective is an incredibly interesting idea that nobody tries to flesh out. Not that The Berlin File is that film- it’s a by-the-numbers action film first and foremost, although Ha does do strong work in the lead role. The acting by Ryu is also excellent. As for the rest of the cast… we’ll get to that.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan doesn’t have the resume or talent level of a Park Chan-wook or Kim Ji-woon, but his work here gives testament to just how damn good the South Korean film industry is at the moment. It’s churning out a steady supply of slick, professionally-shot films that look as good or better than a Hollywood film at a fraction of the cost. That’s not to say that The Berlin File doesn’t have its stylistic high points, in particular a Mexican standoff sequence as good as any put to film and an action-packed, just awesome climax that single-handedly saves what had been a pretty uneven effort up til then. It’s quite a trick to take me from borderline bored to clamoring for a sequel, but that’s just what happened with this one. Corrupt CIA programs have been done to death… rogue agents reentering North Korea to take down party officials, however…
You wish your plots were that cool, Bourne
There was a point where this movie almost lost me. I thought the subtitles were betraying me, but no, my Korean-speaking girlfriend had no idea what was going on, either, and this was her second viewing. There’s no reason the plot should be as convoluted as it is, with conflicts including North Korean vs. South Korean/NK vs. US/Arabs vs. Israelis/NK faction 1 vs. NK faction 2/Israelis vs. SK?/Trekkies vs. Star Wars/Twinkies vs. Ho-Hos/fuck I don’t know, I stopped paying attention a long time ago.
There are some just plain terrible moments in this film that’ll you’ll just have to grit your teeth through, and I’m not sure if the script or the cast is to blame. The South Korean (Han Suk-kyu) and American (John Keogh) agents have a playful banter in English that A. clearly wasn’t written by a native English speaker, B. was phonetically memorized by Han, because he clearly can’t speak the language, and C. Keogh either was drunk, is a hack, or is a drunk hack. While those clichéd conversations are excruciating, I do have to admit some of the Korean aphorisms are kinda awesome, like “You can’t send retards to catch an idiot.”
Korea, I think you have a point
Gianna Jun is a cocky, tough, and hilarious actress with good action chops that I hope to see make a real imprint in Hollywood at some point. In this movie, however, she’s as underutilized as at toothbrush at a methodone clinic. Literally any actress off the street can play this weepy damsel in distress crap- give the girl something to do, script!
Far from perfect, but plenty entertaining, and if a North Korean-set sequel to this ever materializes for this, I’m all over it.
Take a Drink: whenever Pyo gets an ouchie
Take a Drink: whenever someone’s under surveillance or being recorded
Take a Drink: whenever a character dies
Take a Drink: every time a new nationality comes into the mix
Do a Shot: whenever you say fuck it and give up on the plot
Do a Shot: mmm… Doner Kebab