Though his Hollywood debut, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-fronted actioner The Last Stand, didn’t go quite as well as planned (flawed to be sure, I still dig it more than most), South Korean director Kim Jee-woon has done little more than churn out one hit after another for more than a decade. His genre-crossing run started with A Tale of Two Sisters and rolled right through masterpieces like A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and I Saw the Devil.
Back working in his home country (though teaming up with Warner Bros.) after his brief dalliance with America, Kim’s latest, The Age of Shadows—which just so happens to be South Korea’s submission for the best foreign language Academy Award this year—finds the filmmaker hopping genres again. A lush, lavish, impeccably staged period piece set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, Shadows delivers twisted, layered, pulpy spy thriller deliciousness.
The great Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, Thirst, The Host) stars as Lee Jung-chool, a Korean-born police officer and former member of the resistance now in cahoots with the Japanese occupiers. Working to unravel a rebel plot, lead by Kim Woo-jin (Train to Busan star Gong Yoo), to smuggle explosives into Seoul, turns into a razor wire cat-and-mouse game of shifting loyalties, betrayal, unlikely comradery, ethical grey zones, and crises of conscience.
Everyone plays their own angle and has their own end game in sight. While the “in another life, they could be friends” thread isn’t wholly fresh, an earnestness drives the two central figures despite the fact that neither ever explicitly speaks his mind. A moment between Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, and Lee Byung-hun only highlights this sharp, stirring, back and forth full of hidden meanings and subtext. Little more than three men sitting at a table pounding booze, watching this vaunted trio together comprises one of the many true joys of The Age of Shadows.
Driven by a borderline discordant score; off-the-wall, yet somehow perfect soundtrack choices; and effortlessly gorgeous camera work from frequent Kim collaborator Kim Ji-yong, The Age of Shadows crackles with energy. An extended scene on a train gives Hitchcock a run for his money when it come to building suspense, and the narrative veers from thriller to interpersonal drama to near horror. Let it be remembered, Kim Jee-woon is never one to shy away from brutal violence when the need arises, illustrated by a handful of grim, stomach-churning torture scenes and the predilections of Um Tae-goo’s Hashimoto, an ambitious, wild card Japanese cop.
For a time in the final act, things unravel and spiral out of control as Kim loses focus and momentum—the scope gets a bit grand for itself, it's easy to lose threads if you're not paying attention, and the pace drags when it needs to pick up most. But he’s so assured as a filmmaker and has such a precise, meticulous hand—coupled with a compelling, at times mesmerizing performance from Song—that he regains control. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of grabbing the steering wheel just before the car careens off a cliff.
An homage to older films—it watches like a Korean version of a paranoid Cold War spy thriller—Kim breathes his own particular life into the narrative. Part arthouse, part grindhouse; pulsing with pressure and stakes both personally and politically astronomical; and exquisite in every last detail, The Age of Shadows could have been lifted from the pages of a dime-store paperback with breathless tension, moral ambiguity, and complex action. [Grade: A-]