The Berlin File: Film Review

Berlin Files Still - H 2013
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Spy vs. spy intrigue dominates this overcomplicated thriller.

South Korean writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan shifts focus to Europe for this insiders’ take on covert operations.

Curiously quaint in concept and fairly conventional in execution, South Korean action auteur Ryoo Seung-wan’s contemporary spy thriller plays almost like a throwback to the 70s, with its focus on Berlin as a nest of competing intelligence agencies.  Already a major hit in Korea, where it notched the number-one spot last weekend with $15.5 million in boxoffice, The Berlin File is well-positioned to capitalize on Ryoo’s international reputation for tasty genre fare as it ventures into overseas markets, opening Stateside February 15.

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By converting North vs. South Korean political rivalries to an international setting and substituting global arms trading and money laundering for all-out post-Cold War conflict, writer-director Ryoo sets a contemporary tone, which is oddly contradicted by his view that Berlin continues to represent a major nexus for global clandestine operations. After a secretive arms deal in the German capital involving North Korean spy Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo), a Russian broker and a Middle-Eastern terrorist goes wrong when it’s disrupted by unknown assailants, Pyo narrowly escapes, only to confront a daunting morass of conflicting evidence that may reveal why he was set up or else lead straight into a deadly trap.

Also investigating the failed weapons sale, South Korean intelligence agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) must determine the North’s role in the deal, as well as the potential involvement of the CIA, Israel’s Mossad spy agency, international terrorist organizations, and any other covert operatives lurking in Berlin’s polyglot underworld.

Confronting the possibility of a double-agent within Berlin’s North Korean embassy where his wife Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun) is a translator, Pyo discovers that Pyongyang security authorities have dispatched ruthless fixer Dong Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum) to sort out potentially conflicting loyalties at the consulate. Dong’s investigation quickly implicates Ryun and he gives Pyo just 48 hours to incriminate his wife, who’s suspected of leaking information on the arms deal to South Korean agents trying to gain access to a secret multibillion-dollar bank account controlled by Pyongyang authorities.

Despite an apparently loveless marriage, Pyo is reluctant to betray Ryun, particularly after she discloses she’s pregnant, and when the North Korean ambassador makes an attempt to defect to the West, Pyo becomes incriminated as well. Narrowly escaping an assassination squad dispatched by Dong, Ryun and Pyo go on the run, with the rival Korean intelligence agencies closing in fast.  

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With an A-team cast taking the primary roles, including Ryoo’s brother and regular collaborator Ryoo Seung-bum, and featuring the return of Shiri’s Han Suk-kyu along with international star Gianna Jun, The Berlin File crackles with tense character conflict. Points should also be awarded for the Korean actors’ English-language dialogue, but it’s often so heavily accented that subtitles might actually be warranted. Although Ryoo smoothly shifts genres to an international stage, he’s so overloaded the narrative with minor characters supporting intersecting subplots that the film’s principal throughline, centering on personal loyalty and patriotism, too often gets obscured.

Atmospherically shooting at a variety of key locations around Berlin, Ryoo and cinematographer Choi Yeong-hwan opt for bathing most scenes in the blue-gray lighting that’s all-too characteristic of spy yarns, but by injecting frequent high-octane shootouts and chases they consistently deliver a variety of invigorating set pieces.  

Chun Soo-a’s production design emphasizes the less-glamorous aspects of clandestine operations and the brisk pacing set by editors Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-bum rarely flags before reaching the overly drawn-out climactic scenes.

Opens: Feb. 15 (CJ Entertainment); Also in: EFM, Berlin

Production companies: Filmmaker R&K, CJ E&M

Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Ryoo Seung-bum, Han Suk-kyu, Gianna Jun, Kim Seo-hyung, Lee Geung-young, Bae Jung-nam

Director-writer: Ryoo Seung-wan

Producer: Kang Hye-jung

Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung

Director of photography: Choi Yeong-hwan

Production designer: Chun Soo-a

Costume designer: Shin Ji-young

Editor: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-bum

Music: Cho Young-wuk

No Rating, 120 minutes