In the first of many commanding
set pieces in “The Age of Shadows,” a superb cloak-and-dagger
entertainment that’s set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, one man
follows another through a courtyard while a wave of officers swarm across the rooftops
in hot pursuit. Leaping in loose, nimble formations from one building to the
next, these officers resemble nothing so much as rifle-wielding extras in a
1920s spy-thriller replay of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
It’s a stunning image, and for all the adrenaline of the moment, its
irresistible momentum has a way of putting you weirdly at ease. Over the course
of this relentlessly swift 140-minute movie, your mind may race to keep up with
the particulars of what’s at stake and who’s crossing whom. But the South
Korean director Kim Jee-woon likes to work at his own pace, and he carries you
over the narrative ramparts with style, verve and abundant confidence that all
will be made clear in due course.
There are many mysteries in “The Age of
Shadows,” none more compelling than the question of where one man’s allegiance
lies. He’s Lee Jung-chool, a Korean police captain whose cruel Japanese
overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance
movement. But while Lee — played with an unerring balance of sympathy and moral
ambiguity by the great Song Kang-ho — has a history of selling out his own
people to secure a favorable position with the Japanese, he’s been hit
harder than usual by the death of Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon), a resistance fighter
who used to be his classmate.
The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee
Byung-hun, in an extended cameo), senses that this turncoat, if approached and
handled properly, might be turned once more — this time in their favor. And so
begins an incremental, ingeniously coded psychological dance between Lee and a
key resistance figure named Kim Woo-jin (the excellent Gong Yoo, “Train to
Busan”), whose antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives
from Shanghai into Seoul. While Lee could theoretically bring down this
operation at any moment, he seems just as likely to become an ally, thanks in
no small part to Kim’s skillful application of pressure.
The screenwriters, Lee Ji-min and Park
Jong-dae, embellish this crafty scenario with no shortage of ingenious
complications, effectively doubling the number of double agents at every turn.
After Jan-ok is betrayed to the enemy, Che-san becomes aware of a mole
somewhere in the resistance. Meanwhile, Lee Jung-chool, deemed untrustworthy by
his superiors because of his Korean heritage, is saddled with a partner
named Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo, ferocious), a sadistic Japanese
zealot who begins secretly monitoring Lee’s every move.
A filmmaker as attuned to detail and
process as a watchmaker, Kim Jee-woon allows the machinations to build up and
play out in inexorable yet unpredictable fashion. The centerpiece of “The Age
of Shadows” is a long, glorious sequence in which all the principal characters
find themselves on a train to Seoul, their various agendas and alliances
shifting at every moment as they move between carriages. With its brutal,
close-quarters action choreography and its steadily intensifying suspense — you
may be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, if not James Bond —
the sequence is a tour de force in a movie that, minute by vise-like minute,
proves worthy of the same designation.
Although rooted in a real-life 1923 plot to
blow up a Japanese police station in Seoul, “The Age of Shadows” (which will
represent South Korea in the Academy Awards race for foreign-language
film) is less a fact-based drama than a deliriously unhinged B-movie
fantasia that quickly slips the bonds of its historical framework. If the
title carries inescapable echoes of “Army of Shadows,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s
incomparable 1969 thriller about the French Resistance, the connection is
underscored here by a female fighter, Yun Gye-soon (Han Ji-min,
lovely and lethal in a red cloche hat), and also by the numerous scenes of her
rightly suspicious collaborators ruthlessly pruning their own ranks.
Never less than a showcase for its alternately
sumptuous and realistically muted production design, as well as Kim Ji-yong’s
lustrous widescreen camerawork, “The Age of Shadows” marks an outstanding
return to form for Kim Jee-woon after his strained Arnold Schwarzenegger
vehicle, “The Last Stand.” (The title of that bizarre Hollywood misadventure
proved happily un-prescient.) Festival-goers and fans of extreme Asian cinema
will remember him better for the ultra-violent likes of “The Good, the Bad, the
Weird” (2010), a gleeful Eastern spin on the spaghetti western that memorably
pitted Song and Lee Byung-hun against each other, and “I Saw the Devil” (2011),
a horrifying serial-killer thriller that demands to be watched through one’s
fingers or not at all.
A connoisseur of screen violence who can make
even his famous countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook look timid by
comparison, Kim Jee-woon has curbed but not sacrificed those grisly impulses
here, as the arterial gushers and close-ups of severed digits will attest.
But nothing in this gratifyingly focused movie feels excessive or gratuitous,
and a situation that repeatedly threatens to spiral out of control is
dramatized with the utmost assurance. These fighters and their
undeniable heroism notwithstanding, resistance is futile.
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