The Berlin File
Korea (2013) Dir. Ryoo Seung-wan
All eyes are on an illegal arms deal taking place in a hotel in Berlin involving Arab representative Assim (Tayfun Bademsoy), Russian broker Yuri (Werner Daehn) and a North Korean “Ghost” agent Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo). Watching in the shadows are North Korean Berlin Ambassador Ri Hak Su (Lee Gyeong-yeong) and South Korean intelligence agents led by Jeong Jin-su (Han Seok-gyu). The deal is interrupted by unknown terrorists with Pyo being the only one to escape alive, with Jeong hot on his tail to expose his identity, with the belief that he may be a double agent.
Meanwhile Dong Myung-Soo (Ryoo Seung-Bum) a lethal trouble shooter has been sent by his father, an eminent North Korean official, to Berlin to clear up the mess but he has ulterior motives to usurp Ri Hak Su’s position as Berlin Ambassador for his father to take over. His first step is to eradicate Ri, Pyo and Pyo’s wife Ryun Jung-Hee (Gianna Jun), a translator for Ri who has been set up as a traitor to the North.
And that is just the half of it. With Korea seemingly intent on increasing their presence on the international movie market, they have been paying attention to what is hot in Hollywood insofar as taut and intricate crime action thrillers, such as the Bourne films. While no strangers to such films The Berlin File is Korea’s biggest step towards competing with Tinsel Town adopting a truly international flavour for mass appeal. As forced as this may sound the end result isn’t as calamitous as it could have been, although Korean actors should be given more lessons in speaking English as their attempts are as risible as they are incomprehensible.
We are thrown right into the story from the onset, leaving no room for filler or extraneous material although the usual prelude which introduces the cast to the audience would have helped as the roll call of characters and their various allegiances is quite a lengthy one. The lines are initially blurred concerning Pyo’s role as North Koreans are the natural enemy so to speak of the South Koreans and being an agent automatically makes him a suspicious character to Jeong and the audience and he certainly doesn’t make things easy for himself with his actions.
He is even aggressive to his wife under normal circumstances so the suggestion she is a traitor puts a real strain on their relationship, but of course Jung-Hee is as much a pawn in the game as Pyo is. In the middle of this you the have ardent anti-Communist Jeong who is torn between a number of loyalties both professional and personal, made increasingly difficult by the interference of numerous global parties, whose presence corrupts the progress of his investigation.
If you haven’t guessed by now the plot quickly spirals out of control and requires your full attention – blink and you’ll miss a tiny detail that will throw you of course for the rest of the film. That isn’t to say this develops into a mind numbing, meta-physical psychobabble type of film that only Stephen Hawking can follow, rather the ever changing directions and plot twists across the two hours come thick and fast, amid a series of hard hitting and breath taking action scenes, mixing gunplay with brutal one on one combat.
For writer and director Ryoo Seung-wan this isn’t new territory as previous outing such as the acclaimed No Blood No Tears (2002), City Of Violence (2006) and The Unjust (2010). Ryoo has also dabbled in comedy and martial arts flicks but this film marks a return to form. The first part of the film is in part a tribute to Berlin’s Cold War past as a hotspot for espionage, building up the story in the great tradition of Le Carrè to put the slightest doubt on the most honourable character and make you think twice about what will happen next.
The final act is action packed but a sense of disjuncture from the rest of the film as a result, lacking the intrigue and uncertainty of the preceding acts since most of the plot threads have been resolved. By no means a flat conclusion to this riveting film but a rather somewhat conventional one that at least delivers in earnest on the physical front.
Ryoo has chosen a strong cast to bring his vision to life, including Ha Jung-woo as Pyo who is no stranger to violent roles (see The Chaser) and Han Seok-gyu has made his name in similar fare like Tell Me Something or The President’s Last Bang. Despite not being featured as much as she should have, the original Sassy Girl, Gianna Jun delivers a solid turn as the emotionally stretched Ryun Jung-Hee, proving herself once again to be more than the cute faced folly she made her name as.
While each performance is intense and well defined, the aforementioned troubles with the English language by the Korean cast is an unfortunate setback; Han Seok-gyu suffers the most with terrible diction and a distinct lack of rhythm or cadence to his delivery which serves as a minor detriment to the credibility of his character. If it’s any consolation, some of the non-Asian also fall short of the mark in their roles.
It’s not perfection but the pluses more than outweigh the minuses in The Berlin File and if its intention was purely to impress the international market it may just achieve that. Ironically, the film was ignored by the German film festival including Berlinale 2013 but don’t take that as a valid critique, this is a slick, tightly woven and involving crime thriller of some significance.