“The Berlin File”, a gritty action film from South Korea, is a respectful homage to those cold, gray espionage films made during the 1960-70s. With its melancholic mood reminiscent of John le Carré’s novels(one of his books briefly appears in the movie as a small sign of recognition), this gloomy tale of international espionage works as an engaging drama about the people struggling in their uncertain world, and its thriller plot is packed with the impressive action sequences fueled by the raw physical vitality we do not encounter often in those standard Hollywood action films.
The conflict between South and North Korea, which has been continuing since the Korean War, has literally been asking for the 21th century Cold War espionage story like this film. I have no knowledge associated with the story the movie tries to tell, but, as far as I heard indirectly from others, it seems the conflict between South and North Korea is not entirely confined to the demarcation line between these two countries, so it can be easily imagined that there are many unhappy people doing their difficult, depressing, and dangerous jobs somewhere in the Cold.
The story opens with a secret arms deal gone wrong in Berlin. Pyo Jong-seong(Ha Jeong-woo), a North Korean agent who has not yet been detected by other agencies including South Korea’s National Intelligence Service(such an agent is called ‘ghost’, which is a valuable asset to any agency), is negotiating with a Russian arms dealer and his Arab associate in one hotel room, and it gradually turns out that there are many eyes and ears watching and listening to their conversation besides his North Korean colleagues.
Jeong Jin-soo(Han Seok-kyu), a South Korean agent leading the surveillance operation on them, and his people are ready to capture Jong-seong with others, but they fail to capture them due to a sudden complication in the situation. Their failure is accompanied with the considerable damages they will have to deal with at their offices, and we come to see that they are plain public servants far, far different from James Bond. They do shoot or fight sometimes, but their boss does not welcome the resulting noises which can cause serious diplomatic problems to the government they work for, so this failed mission causes lots of headaches to Jin-soo and the others at the local headquarter. Furious about a mysterious North agent who escaped right in front of his eyes, Jin-soo is determined to get him and find the reason behind his failed mission, so he starts gathering the clues for his investigation officially and unofficially.
Meanwhile, Jong-seong and other North Korean agents at the embassy in Berlin also have lots of things to worry about because it seems the failed deal causes the suspicion from the high-ranking officials and generals in Pyongyang, who have been pretty uneasy about their new domestic political situation after the recent death of Kim Jong-il and the following succession of his son Kim Jung-eun. It looks like somebody leaked the information in advance, so that is how Dong Myeong-soo(Ryoo Seung-beom, the director Ryoo Seung-wan’s brother) comes into the picture from Pyongyang for investigation. Besides being a good undercover agent, he is also a ruthless killer, and he shows us during one brief scene that a pen is indeed mightier than a knife.
Jong-seong’s circumstance becomes more precarious because Myeong-soo is suspicious about Ryeon Jeong-hee(Jeon Ji-hyeon), the ambassador’s translator who is also Jong-seong’s wife. As he senses more danger being accumulating around him, Jong-seong realizes that he must do something for confirming himself as a royal servant of his party as soon as possible – or his career and life may be finished along with hers.
What we get here is a typical espionage story full of intrigues and suspicions which can be succinctly summarized in one phrase: trust no one. Jong-seong quietly wonders whether his wife is someone who betrayed him, and the barren relationship between them in their grey apartment feels drier and bleaker than usual as both flatly regard each other as their respective cards held behind their backs. The more Jong-seong realizes something big is going on behind his back, the more his belief and loyalty is shaken under this situation – and Jin-soo is approaching to him step by step from the other side.
The scope of the story gets bigger as it introduces other shadowy figures in Berlin besides North Koreans and South Koreans, and the director/writer Ryoo Seung-wan forcefully pushes his story forward on the surface even when it gets murkier about what is going on behind its cover. The atmosphere of the movie is exemplary; it is always drenched with that familiar pessimistic ambience from the espionage movies in the 1960-70s, and the actors are good as the simple hard-boiled characters who do not reveal themselves a lot to the others around him. Some details on the screen are enjoyable to watch, and you may be amused by a briefing room which looks pretty shabby despite some high-tech equipments in the room. Spying is not a glamorous job, you know.
The movie also provides several ferocious action sequences during the second half of the story, and their sheer intensity is fueled by dynamic physical fights as well as guns and explosions. They certainly used stunt doubles in some shots, but it is both real and exciting to watch none the less because we can believe the characters are really hurled into actions. They may do actions at any time as required, but they are not invincible to pains and torments, and that is what makes the actions in this film more involving with the realistic sound effects on the soundtrack. I must say I was particularly impressed by one busy action sequence in which one character manages to survive from the fall from a high place in the end. I don’t think that is possible in reality, but the sequence is handled with conviction and skills, and I was amazed rather than left in disbelief.
As the hero going through most of the actions in the film, Ha Jeong-woo is as convincing as, say, Matt Damon in the Bourne trilogy. Previously appearing in “The Chaser”(2008) and “The Yellow Sea”(2010), Ha Jeong-woo is no stranger to gritty actions, and he reticently holds the center of the story amidst the actions as a spy getting disillusioned about what he has believed. I have no idea about how his character can keep going on in spite of what he has gone through, but Ha Jeong-woo never loses the human vulnerability of his character with the scars and bruises on his body, and I accepted his character as a real character.
On the opposite, Han Seok-Kyu plays well with his seasoned character’s weary sleaziness; Jin-soo is not a likable guy, but Han Seok-kyu gradually shows through his gruff performance that, as a fellow professional in their shadowy world, Jin-soo somehow begins to get some sympathy and respect toward a man he abhors. Ryoo Seung-beom, who previously gave a wonderful over-the-top performance as a corrupted prosecutor in his brother’s previous film “The Unjust”(2010), does not waste any opportunity to have a juicy fun in his lethal character; Myeong-soo may look like a cocky guy who may deserve some spankings, but that does not change the fact that he is a deadly professional you cannot mess with. As a sole substantial female character in the story, Jeon Ji-hyeon holds her own place among her co-actors with her jaded beauty, and we eventually care about what will happen to her regardless of what she is really hiding from her husband.
While technically excellent as an exciting action movie and a bleak espionage thriller, “The Berlin File” has several weak points. Above all, its ambitious attempt to present us the world of international espionage is not entirely successful for many reasons. The delivery of English dialogues among the actors is a bit awkward and strained to say the least, and the lack of details about the minor supporting characters including a CIA agent and a Mossad agent who are crucial to the plot is too apparent to ignore on the screen. Furthermore, I do not think I understood everything in its story because of the several holes left in the plot. Although there are some required moments for explanations along the story, the actors’ North Korean dialect is not perfect, and I did not wholly understand what exactly they said at times.
Nevertheless, on the whole, the movie remains as a satisfying action thriller I can recommend. Its story and characters may be a little too typical, but it is made by the director and his crew who do know about how to make a good one, and I was entertained by their final result enough to overlook its shortcomings. It could have been more than a competent homage, but, like recent films like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”(2011) or “Zero Darky Thirty”(2012), “The Berlin File” reminds us that there still rich materials for good storytellers to be found in the Cold.