The Age Of Shadows (Miljeong)

Korea (2016) Dir. Kim Jee-woon

It’s a familiar story – a celebrated Korean director tries his luck in Hollywood, fails, returns to his native land and produces an absolute corker to get himself back on track. Park Chan-Wook did it with The Handmaiden and now it’s Kim Jee-Woon’s turn with another epic set during the Japanese occupation of Korea with The Age Of Shadows.

South Korea 1922 and the Japanese police force are on the hunt for members of the Righteous Brotherhood resistance group. Heading the investigation is Captain Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-Ho) a former Independence fighter turned traitor working for the Japanese police. Jung-Chool ingratiates himself with art dealer Kim Woo-Jin (Gong Yoo), knowing full well he is a regional head for the Brotherhood.

Under the advisement of the Brotherhood leader Che-san (Lee Byung-hun), Woo-Jin carefully manipulates Jung-Chool into helping his team ship explosives from Shanghai back to Seoul to bomb the Japanese Embassy building. Unbeknownst to Woo-Jin there is a rat amongst his team whilst someone on the Japanese police force is double-crossing Jung-Chool.

There is no denying that this stylish spy thriller marks a welcome return to form for Kim Jee-Woon after his fruitless sojourn in Tinsel Town where even having Arnold Schwarzenegger as his big name star couldn’t help produce positive results. The only good thing to come out of this was Warner Brothers financing and distributing this film, which surprisingly hasn’t diluted or compromised its impact or content at all.

Opening with a proverbial bang, Jung-Chool and his team are hunting down a member of the Brotherhood and a former schoolmate Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon), whose death hits him hard for the first time now his betrayals are starting to run closer to home. With the two way undercover duplicity in full progress, this chink in Jung-Chool’s armour is the opening the Brotherhood feel they can take advantage of.  

But there has to be a snag in the plan and that comes in the form of ruthless hotheaded Japanese officer Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo). This permanently sneering brute is paired with Jung-Chool as both he and their superior Chief Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) feel Jung-Chool’s Korean blood makes him untrustworthy despite his actions against his own compatriots.

With their hand now forced, Woo-Jin and his cabal have to get creative in getting to Shanghai, where they are followed and back to Seoul by train. Anyone who recalls The Good, The Bad, The Weird may be expecting a similar train chase and while this isn’t the case, Kim does deliver a series of nicely tense skits involving the Brotherhood trying to avoid raising the suspicion of the Japanese, while Jung-Chool fights to maintain his dual activities for both camps.

The claustrophobic interior of a moving train should offer limited room for movement but film history has proved otherwise and on this occasion, Kim uses this paucity of space to his advantage. With the Brotherhood all travelling separately and the Japanese moving from coach to coach, the chances of being caught increase by each wrought moment. Everything comes to a bloody climax following a cloyingly awkward moment when Jung-Chool, Woo-Jin and Hashimoto are brought together in the dining car.

Back in Seoul the line between Jung-Chool’s duty as a Japanese police officer and his growing support for the Brotherhood continues to be compromised to a whole new level, yet there is still room for further duplicity to expediate the demise of the rebels. The script deftly maintains an air of ambiguity in where Jung-Chool’s loyalties truly lie whilst allowing room to tease whether any lingering distrust of his Japanese masters will fully reveal itself.

For most of us on this side of the world this film plays out as a densely potted and superbly executed spy thriller-cum-period drama, resplendent in its fastidiously detailed immersive 1920’s aesthetic; to its native audience this will assuredly be viewed as another patriotic celebration of those who dared to challenge the Japanese rule (this is based on real events), along with many other recent films on this subject.  

Kim and script developer Lee Jin-sook don’t hold back in painting the rebels as brave national heroes, nor are they so naïve as to go overboard with the flag waving that it becomes unpalatable. However, the Japanese – Hashimoto especially – are portrayed in typically broad strokes of being gleefully evil, teetering on the precipice of becoming a caricature.

Acting as a fulcrum for the entire story is the relationship between Jung-Chool and Woo-Jin, one that cleverly avoids the trap of evolving into a sentimental love fest by the end, with the former having achieved redemption with the latter’s help. The trust factor wavers from time to time and neither is really sure of the other’s motives or honesty, but circumstance lifts the veil on where the truth actually lies.

On the casting front, Kim reunites with the inestimable Song Kang-Ho for a fourth time and debate is open as to whether this is the richest performance Song has given Kim yet. He’s now at that age where he is beginning to fit the gravitas role yet is still young enough to carry a film, and Jung-Chool is a character that allows Song to do both superbly.

Fresh off the zombie infested Train To Busan, Gong Yoo spars confidently with Song to bolster the credibility of his CV with this layered essaying of Woo-Jin, adapting to the physical and emotional turns of his character’s circumstances with studied empathy. The supporting cast are less fortunate on the development front but remain committed to their roles to flesh out both sides of this sinuous game of cat and mouse.

The 140-minute run time of The Age Of Shadows flies by thanks to Kim Jee-Woon’s astute direction and understanding of how to keep an audience invested visually and emotionally. Replete with boundless intrigue and taut thrills ahead of the wonderfully audacious and literally explosive denouement, this is how period blockbusters should be done.  

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