Have you ever picked up a DVD on the basis of the rave reviews emblazoned on the cover? I’ve done it many times, enticed by bold statements like “EXTRAORDINARY”, “THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR”, “AN EXCEPTIONAL FILM”, only to discover that the critical assessments which drew you to the film in the first place bear no resemblance to the film you just watched. The fact is that many of these statements are taken so out of context in order to sell the film that they make the film out to be something that it isn’t. Take the single word “EXTRAORDINARY” for instance. Film distributors are so desperate to get you to part with your cash for a lacklustre production that they will use that single word instead of using it in the sentence that it was originally intended. The original reviewer may have written: “this film is EXTRAORDINARY in its dullness.”
See how it works.
It comes as a surprise, then, when you find a film that does exactly what it says on the tin and then some. Such is the case for Kim Jee Woon’s exceptional espionage thriller The Age of Shadows. “A BREATHTAKING PIECE OF FILMMAKING”, “MAGNIFICENT”, and “BREATHLESSLY EXCITING” are just three of the superlatives this film has garnered. And they are one hundred percent correct.
OK, before I go on, I need to point out that this is a this is a SOUTH KOREAN film and comes with ENGLISH SUBTITLES, so those of you who have difficulty reading words and watching images at the same time should probably read no further and you may want to wait for the inevitable washed-out, watered down American remake. Spike Lee remade Chanwook Park’s excellent Oldboy and it didn’t work and in the near future we’re going to be subjected to Adam Wingard’s remake of Kim Jee Woon’s I Saw The Devil.
All over East Asia they are producing movies that are far superior to anything the Hollywood money machine can churn out and at a fraction of the cost. City of Life and Death from China, made in black-and-white, about the Japanese invasion of Nanking makes Schindler’s List look like a children’s film. 13 Assassins from Japan is a thrilling take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that ends with a bravura 45 minute bloodbath. The Raid from Indonesia is more exciting than all the Die Hard films put together and its sequel, The Raid II, made on a budget of $4 million but looking like it was made for $200 million, has a car chase that’s even better than the one in Ronin. Ong-Bak from Thailand has some of the most spectacular stunts you’ll ever see, all done without CGI, wires and stuntmen. The Host from Korea was what both American versions of Godzilla should have been like. Kung Fu Hustle from Hong Kong is simply one of the freshest, most frenetic and funniest films ever made and I Saw The Devil is possibly the most disturbingly original serial killer movie ever made.
I remember being completely blown away the first time I watched Kim Jee Woon’s I Saw The Devil. It’s a dark and violent tale about a serial killer who murders and mutilates the wrong woman. Her fiancée, you see, is a secret service agent who quickly tracks the killer down, beats the living daylights out of him and then forces a tracker down his throat when he’s semi-conscious. He then begins a game of catch-and-release with him, interrupting him just before he’s about to murder again and causing him extreme physical harm. This in turn fuels his obsession for making the killer suffer for the crime he committed until he can no longer stop himself. Ultimately the film asks the question: When does the person chasing a monster become a monster himself? I Saw The Devil is an uncompromisingly disturbing film for people with broad minds and strong stomachs but it’s helped along by having two of the best actors in Korean cinema on board: Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Lucy) as the killer and Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, RED 2, The Magnificent Seven) as the secret service agent.
But there is one thing: it’s subtitled.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand watching foreign films dubbed into English – with the exception of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns – and all I can say to those who refuse to watch a film with subtitles is this: You really don’t know what you’re missing. And out of all the foreign film markets it’s South Korea that’s consistently producing the most uncompromising, exciting and polished thrillers today and Kim Jee Woon’s The Age of Shadows is no exception.
|The Age of Shadows Poster|
Set in the late 1920s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and based on an actual event, a group of resistance fighters led by the leader’s second-in-command attempt to bring in explosives by train from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul. An ex-member of the group, now a high ranking Japanese police officer, assisted by a sadistic Japanese army officer, is tasked to infiltrate the resistance at all costs by befriending an antique dealer who’s involved in the plot but has never been exposed. And so begins a game of cat-and-mouse that’s reminiscent of the cloak-and dagger movies of 1930s and 40s, where the police officer’s loyalty is called into question. The violence is shocking, gruesome and realistic but never gratuitous and the set-pieces are spectacularly well executed. A thirty minute sequence on a train is heart-thumping and almost unbearably tense. It’s positively Hitchcockian in its palm-sweating delivery and, dare I say it, completely exceeds anything the master of suspense ever served up. There’s a scene in the Japanese embassy towards the end where the use of classical music and arse-clenching tension combine perfectly, after which you’ll never listen to Ravel’s Bolero in the same way again.
This is, to say the least, a remarkable film from the writer/director of such diverse genre masterpieces as A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil. With The Age of Shadows he’s at the top of his game, tackling yet another genre movie with confidence and throughout its 139 minute running time there is not one single boring second.