Korea’s official entry into the Best Foreign Language film category for the 2017 Oscars, The Age of Shadows is a mix of spy thriller and action movie that was inspired by the real life 1923 bombing of Seoul’s police headquarters by the resistance movement.
The Age of Shadows is set in Seoul in the 1920’s, a time when Korea was still under the oppressive colonial rule of the Japanese. Resistance movements were struggling to undermine the Japanese. The leader of the local resistance movement is the charming fanatic Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, from the recent Last Train To Busan), a former antiques dealer who is using the sale of rare objects to fund the purchase of explosives from Hungary. The rebels plan to smuggle explosive into Seoul from China and use them to destroy key Japanese facilities in the city.
Korean policeman Lee Jung-Chool (played by Song Kang-ho, from Snowpiercer) works with the Japanese police force but he is full of a thinly veiled resentment towards his masters. Chool is assigned by his boss Chief Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) to try and penetrate the resistance movement and identify the leaders. The authorities hope that Woo-jin will ultimately lead them to the Shanghai-based leader Jung Che-san (action star Lee Byung-hun, who appeared in the recent remake of the classic western The Magnificent Seven). Chool works as a double agent, but being sympathetic towards the resistance and their cause he manages to warn them about potential traps. But Chool is also accompanied by the sadistic and suspicious Japanese policeman Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), which means he walks a tightrope of deception in which one false move could lead to disaster and arrest.
A long and extended cat-and-mouse game ensues that will remind audiences of the 2002 Chinese film Infernal Affairs, which was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning drama The Departed.
Genre hopping Korean director Kim Jei-woo (who directed The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen after serving two terms as California’s governor) gives this spy thriller an epic feel. He captures the murky world of deception and betrayal and divided loyalties efficiently and the film will remind some audiences of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 WWII resistance drama Army of Shadows. The Age of Shadows is Jei-woo’s thirteenth feature, and his first after a three year absence, and is an impressive addition to his canon. He easily moves between genres with this thriller – it is part spy thriller, part action movie, part Korean gangster movie, and part epic period drama. The period detail is authentic. The film has been beautifully shot by Jei-woo’s regular cinematographer Kim Ji-yong, and his sepia toned lensing adds to the 1920s ambience.
Jei-woo develops some suspense throughout, particularly during an extended sequence set on a train. An opening sequence featuring a rooftop chase is excitingly staged and choreographed, and there are a couple of strong set pieces that are also well staged. Jei-woo doesn’t shy away from some brutal violence here, and there is a gritty torture sequence that is not for the squeamish.
Kang-ho delivers a solid performance as the policeman with conflicted ideals. Yoo is sympathetic and charismatic as the idealistic resistance leader. But many of the other characters here fail to leave much of an impression on the audience.
The Age of Shadows is the first local Korean production financed by Warner Bros studios and it is a classy and stylish film. However, the plot becomes a little complex and confusing at times. And at a generous 140 minutes the film is a little long, and the pace flags in the middle sections.
Director: Kim Jei-woo
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo
Release Date: 3 November 2016
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television