Fans of recent high-tension Korean thrillers like The Terror Live and A Hard Day will find much to enjoy in powerhouse director Kim Jee-woon’s double-agent drama, though there’s enough action on offer to thrill those with more visceral tastes too.
The protagonist, Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-ho), is a Korean working for occupying Japanese forces in 1920’s Korea. The film tracks Jeon-chool’s internal struggle as he is tasked with tracking down Korean freedom fighters engaged in a plot to bomb the Japanese command. Those unfamiliar with the history underpinning the plot may struggle to contextualise events, but the essential elements as Jee-woon presents them are:
- The Japanese annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled it until 1945;
- Japanese rule was cruel and repressive;
- Korean dissidents bravely fought back by any means.
The emotional core of the story is Jeong-chool’s struggle in picking between his Japanese employers and his Korean ancestry. A cat and mouse game ensues once his investigations lead him to rebel leader Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo).
Jeong-chool and Woo-jin deceive and track each other across slick period sets (including a beautifully furnished train) as loyalties move in and out of focus. The cast is filled out by seductively righteous freedom fighters and comically unlikable Japanese officers; many of whom are largely superfluous to proceedings except as gratuitous plot devices – targets to shoot at or torture.
The more kinetic sections of the film are where Jee-woon’s directorial style flourishes. As in his A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil the ponderous soon gives way to the thrilling and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong switches from drama to action mode. A rebel plot to smuggle explosives from China crystalises and prompts several scenes of torture, pursuit, and ultimately a test of Jeong-chool’s allegiances in an explosive finale.
It may be a sign of the times that financial backing for The Age of Shadows came from Warner Bros., who are venturing for the first time into Korean cinema. Korea, like China, retains limits on the number of foreign films shown in theatres. The importance of the Asian market to U.S. studios has become increasingly apparent in the last few years and Kim Jee-woon is well placed to reap the benefits of a bigger budget and greater Western distribution. On viewing it seems unlikely that the studio came to the table with any creative restrictions on Jee-woon’s style, and The Age of Shadows is ultimately a showy combination of his strengths ratcheted up to 11.
While pacing and nuance are occasionally thrown out at the window at the expense of a rollicking action scene, there are no dull moments in the production. The Age of Shadows is just as pleasing in moments of high-gloss action as in scenes of taut character drama, both of which abound.