Apparently influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film “The Army of Shadows” (1969), South Korean film “The Age of Shadows” tells us a gray melancholic tale of underground organization members who must be very careful in every step for their dangerous operations, and the movie is dark, gritty, tense, and violent as demanded while giving us a number of visually gripping sequences along with a few unexpected moments of humor. Although its concoction of various elements is not entirely coherent, I enjoyed its better parts even while noticing its lesser parts, and that was enough to engage me during its 140-minute running time.
Its historical background is Korea during the 1920s, the middle of the Japanese Occupation era. After Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910, many Korean people participated in the independence movement inside and outside Korea in spite of the ruthless suppression of the Japanese police, and the opening sequence shows a member of Organization of Righteous Bravery attempting to sell an antique statue to a rich man who may finance the organization in exchange.
The deal does not go well when it turns out that the Japanese police is waiting for ambush in advance. Supervised by Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-ho), a Korean collaborator who was once associated with the independence movement but now is working as a police captain trusted by his Japanese boss, a group of military policemen swiftly pursue and then corner their target during a dynamic chase sequence unfolded around night alleys, which culminates to the final moment between Jeong-chool and the man he has known since their early years. They were once schoolmates, but now they are on opposite positions, and what will soon happen is clear to both of them as they are facing the inevitability of their circumstance.
Because there are still other organization members out there and it looks like they are planning something big at present, Jeong-chool approaches closer to Kin Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), an antique dealer/photograph shop owner who is also one of the key members of the organization. When Woo-jin and other organization members flee to Shanghai after being informed of Jeong-chool’s pursuit, Jeong-chool is ordered to follow them to Shanghai for drawing their attention. He will not hide at all who he is, but he is going to disguise himself instead as someone who can be recruited by them for whatever they are planning to do.
But Woo-jin and his comrades also know that even before Jeong-chool arrives in Shanghai, and they have an idea on how to deal with Jeong-chool. They will let Jeong-chool come near to them, and then they will indirectly appeal to any conscience or doubt left inside him. After all, he is still a Korean no matter how much he tries to make himself look Japanese in front of his superiors, and double agents can always be swayed to one side or the other, even when they believe they are balancing themselves well on their thin gray middle line.
The movie has a little fun with how Jeong-chool and Woo-jin come closer to each other as spending more time together as school alumni. Both of them clearly know each other’s hidden intention right from the start, but they never say that loud while seemingly enjoying each other’s company on the surface, and it surely helps that Song Kang-ho and Gong Yoo are believable as their characters try to bait each other behind their seemingly casual appearance.
Subsequently getting himself involved more than expected with what Woo-jin and other organization members are preparing, Jeong-chool also has to evade the suspicion of his police partner Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), an ambitious guy who has his own plan for catching Woo-jin and other organization members. While Jeong-chool tries to tiptoe between both sides as much as possible, Hashimoto keeps chasing after his targets by any means necessary, and Jeong-chool finds himself in a very tricky circumstance when he and Hasimoto come to search for Woo-jin and his comrades on a train to Gyeongseong (it is the old name of Seoul, by the way).
The director Kim Ji-woon, who previously made his American directorial debut with “The Last Stand” (2013), is a competent filmmaker with keen eyes for style and mood, and I was often impressed by the stylish prowess shown in the movie. Its production design and costumes are excellent, and the cinematographer Kim Ji-young did a commendable job of establishing the moody atmosphere on the screen. I like the train sequence for its deft handling of suspense and humor, and a sequence propelled by Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” on the soundtrack is dramatic enough to compensate for the rather predictable third act of the movie. As the director who made “I Saw the Devil” (2010), Kim does not step away from brutal moments of violence, and there are a couple of violent scenes to make you cringe for good reasons.
Song and Gong ably carry the movie with their good lead performances. Song’s engaging persona matches well to Gong’s more reserved appearance, and the uneasy relationship between their characters eventually becomes the emotional center of the movie. While Han Ji-min is sadly wasted in her thankless role, Um Tae-goo is suitably menacing although he tries a bit too hard at times (Too bad he did not grow enough mustache to twirl), and Lee Byung-hun and Park Hee-soon respectively provide small but crucial supporting performances.
“The Age of Shadows” was recently selected as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards. I do not think the movie is the best South Korean movie of this year, but it is a well-made film to watch for its strong points none the less. The movie stumbles from time to time, but this interesting genre piece sticks to its gloomy mood to the very end while serving us entertaining moments, and I appreciate that.