Some Korean filmmakers are better off making films in their own homeland than doing sub-par work in Hollywood. Director Kim Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil), who last helmed the mediocre Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller The Last Stand, once again returns to form (along with his roots) with the skillfully mounted The Age of Shadows.
Set in the 1920s, this stunning espionage tale boasts some of the biggest and most familiar names from Korean cinema: Memories of Murder’s Song Kang-ho, Train to Busan’s Gong Yoo and A Bittersweet Life’s Lee Byung-hun. It’s a satisfying concoction of spies, deception, shifting alliances, double-crosses and gun play. It should be a treat for anyone who loves espionage thrillers.
Song Kang-ho plays a Korean police captain who is ordered by his Japanese superiors to thwart attempts by the members of a Korean resistance group, called the Heroic Corps, to plant explosives at key locations in Seoul. Lee Byung-hung plays its enigmatic leader (his role is more like an extended cameo). The actor has previously worked with Kim Jee-Woon on A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil. Gong Yoo plays his steadfast underling.
Song plays a man of questionable repute. His Captain Lee is greedy, ambitious and we are never quite sure of his motives or where his loyalties lie. The answers to our questions are delivered satisfyingly through some neat and cleverly placed twists toward the end. There is more than one double agent, whose actions wreak havoc on the clandestine operations planned by both sides, and resultantly, the lives of few resistance members are jeopardized. Expect few upsetting torture sequences.
The highlight of the film is a pulse-pounding, spectacularly choreographed sequence inside a moving train that is reminiscent of the tavern sequence from Inglourious Basterds. With a glorious production design and dazzling cinematography, the film is eminently pleasing to the eye. Keen-eyed film geeks might recognize subtle nods to Sergio Leone, John Woo, Jean-Pierre Melville and even The Godfather in few places.