Dir.: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Um tae-goo, Han Ji-min
South Korea 2016, 139 min.
The original Korean title in translation means Secret Agent, and writer/director Kim Jee Woon (The last Stand) offers us a dazzling spy story, set in Seoul as well as Shanghai during the 1920s when large parts of South East Asia were occupied by the Japanese. Kim gets very near to the spirit of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent: double crossing, based on ambivalent interests, dominates this sumptuous ballet of shadow fights played out against the alluring background of twenties architecture, lovingly recreated.
The first ten minutes set the tone: Kim Jan-ok, a leading personality of the Korean resistance movement in Seoul is chased by Japanese soldiers, led by Captain Lee Jung-Chool (Song), who once was himself a resistance fighter, before changing sides in Seoul. Cornered, Kim Jan kills himself. The whole sequence is filmed like a ballet: the soldiers jumping from rooftop to rooftop, whilst Kim tries to loose them in the narrow alleyways. Lee is truly sad about Kim’s death, and when he is ordered by his Japanese superior Chief Higashi to catch the leader of the resistance Kim Woo-jin (Gong), he remembers the time spent with Kim Woo and the beautiful Yeon Gye-soon (Han) in the underground movement.
In Shanghai, Lee meets up again with Kim-Woo, who is buying TNT from Hungarian anarchists, to use it against the Japanese in Seoul. On the train journey to the Korean capital, Lee has to kill his nemesis, Hashimoto (Um), to save Kim Woo’s life and that of the other resistance leaders. When they arrive in Seoul station, the police have surrounded the concourse, and one of the most memorable fighting sequence is set in motion – whilst Lee is still able to hide his true conviction to his Japanese superiors.
The true star of the film is DoP Kim Ji-jong, who effortlessly conjures up images of a bygone era: everything glitters in fragmented lights, cars roaming the streets, casting frightening shadows at night where the protagonists look very much like marionettes, pulled along in their own dangerous ways. The vibrant colour schemes are permanently changing, melting into each other, creating prisms and a dreamlike atmosphere. Even the violence takes place in an elegant way – apart from the torture scene with Yeon, which seems out of place. The sequences in the train feel seemless – an endless chase in a labyrinth. Song brilliantly evokes his character: a tormented man whose past eradicates his present. Kim Jee Woon directs with great sensibility, avoiding cliches as much as possible. The Age of Shadows is a real masterpiece: a paean to a people lost in the chaos of events well beyond their control, with images of true magic. AS
NOW SHOWING AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 10 SEPTEMBER 2016