'The Age of Shadows' ('Miljeong'): Venice Review

THE AGE OF SHADOWS -Miljeon - Still 2- H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
The exciting scenes swim in a sea of confused narrative in a lavish but overstretched spy story.

South Korea’s Kim Jee-woon crafts a fast-moving period actioner set in 1920s Asia.

After bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger out of acting retirement in his violent U.S. actioner The Last Stand, South Korean director Kim Jeewoon heads home for a patriotic costumer, The Age of Shadows (Miljeong), co-produced by WB Korea. Several impressive action scenes sustain the tension and electrify this overlong, often hard-to-follow story about courageous Korean freedom fighters trying to overthrow Japanese rule of their country (the Japanese occupation lasted from 1910 to 1945). Most non-Asian audiences lack the historical background to jump into the complicated story, but Kim’s fans will want to venture a look anyway.

It bowed in Venice out of competition under the Italian title The Secret Agent, which more aptly conveys the spy/counterspy period atmosphere.

In a rousing opener, hordes of police commanded by two rival officers move in over rooftops like an army of monkeys to capture a Korean resistance leader as he tries to sell a prized Buddha statue to raise cash for the movement. Wounded in the foot and cornered, he scornfully twists off his own big toe before committing suicide. But first, he informs the burly police captain, evidently an old acquaintance, that he despises him for working for the Japanese. The captain’s answer is that Korean independence is a lost cause — in fact, unbeknownst to both of them, it is 20 years off.

In the following scenes, a bevy of characters flit by at the rapid pace that befits an actioner. Only gradually does the story come into focus. The heavy-set police captain turns out to be Lee Jung-chool (played by Song Kang-ho, the star of Snowpiercer), a capable, duplicitous cop who has turned his back on his Korean comrades to work for the Japanese police. When info arrives from an informant that the independence fighters are heading to Shanghai to pick up explosives and bring them back to Korea, the chief sends him after them on a special mission. In China, he is to disband the cell and arrest its leader Kim Woojin. The bad news is that the sadistic young Japanese agent Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) is assigned to go with him.

Woojin, who is played by Gong Yoo, star of the hit thriller Train to Busan, wins sympathy right away because he’s secretly in love with the  lovely resistance heroine Gye-soon (Han Ji-min). Like the rest of the characters, they are given no backstory and barely any personality, so one’s investment in their fate remains limited. Perhaps just as well, seeing they will be the main participants in the gruesomely vivid torture scenes coming up.

Jung-chool and Woojin both have their informants, and they start playing a cat-and-mice game. Jung-chool pretends to a be corrupt cop interested in doing business in China, while Woojin pretends to help connect him and Hashimoto interferes with both their plans. Many scenes later, Jung-chool meets the real leader of the resistance movement, a young man who is as dashingly handsome as Che Guevara, and is half-seduced into becoming a double-agent for their side.

The big scene worth the price of admission is the train sequence, a long, skillfully shot and edited affair in which the tension grows and grows. In Shanghai, the cell conceals the explosives it bought in trunks, bags and hat boxes, which are carried aboard the Shanghai-Seoul express by incognito members of the resistance. They tensely find their seats in the various classes, according to their disguises, while Hashimoto and Jung-chool comb the train for them, the first to arrest them and the second to help them avoid capture.

Of course, Jung-chool could still be a double- or triple-agent, and the audience is supposed to remain uncertain of his loyalties up to the final scene, which is inspired by the historical 1923 bombing of police headquarters in Seoul by a resistance hero. It’s strong enough to redeem some of the limp narrative that has come before and finally close the long tale of spies.

Production companies: Grimm Pictures, Warner Bros Korea

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Screenwriters: Lee Jimin, Park Jongdae

Producers: Kim Jee-woon, Choi Jaeweon

Coproducers: Choi Jeonghwa, Lee Jinsook

Director of photography: Kim Jiyong

Production designer: Cho Hwasung

Costume designer: Cho Sangkyung

Editor: Yang Jinmo

Music: Mowg

World sales:  Finecut 

139 minutes