Kim Jee-woon, one of South Korea’s most exciting voices working today, comes out with The Age of Shadows – now with the director presenting an espionage thriller set during the Japanese occupation of Korea. What I admire most about Kim Jee-woon is his versatility in terms of his body of work, for he smoothly adapts to sudden shifts in genre types without any trouble (going from slow-paced horror in A Tale of Two Sisters all the way to fast-paced action in A Bittersweet Life), yet there’s always a distinct touch that makes his films recognizable. With The Age of Shadows, we have what may be his most polished film since A Tale of Two Sisters (my favourite from him at the moment) – together with probably some of the most ambitious that one would ever see from him.
History is a key factor to one part of the film’s much grander intentions, given its setting during the end of the 1920’s when Japan had occupied the Koreans. Kim Jee-woon is setting everything up for a period drama so perfectly, whether it be from how he arranges the set pieces or the turn of events that come along, only heightening the stakes for The Age of Shadows. Kim Jee-woon is able to capture the bleakness of such a period with ease, whether it be from how he puts the stunning set pieces together or how he chooses to examine the relationships between Japanese and Korean citizens at such a time, it all adds up to a sense of elegance that would draw back to what it was that I loved so much when I watched A Tale of Two Sisters.
While there are so many set pieces put together that make The Age of Shadows work seamlessly as a period drama, it’s interesting to see how the espionage genre is embedded in. There are a multitude of characters in The Age of Shadows, but focus primarily surrounds that of Song Kang-ho’s Lee Jeong-chol. Lee Jeong-chol is a man of Korean descent, but he is shown to be working for the Japanese police. There is never a sense of clarity for whom he is associated with, making him an interesting point of focus. His task is to expose the Korean resistance’s second-in-command, and his sides also begin to shift, which is where an interesting moral is set for the film. He is a man who is in the middle of the spectrum, for he sympathizes with the resistance in spite of his assignment being to expose their leader. The question at hand, though, is whether he is trustworthy or not – but the choices which he makes are what make him an interesting figure to keep focus on while the film is going. It is certainly convoluted, but that is where it is all the more fascinating as it gives the idea that no one can truly be trusted when tangled into such a scenario.
Knowing what Kim Jee-woon is aiming for with The Age of Shadows from his blending of genres into such a piece given as you can find many elements of period drama, espionage thriller, and action film put into one, it is quite astonishing just to think about how he can make these shifts in tone feel so natural to the film’s pacing (which perfectly suits the film). Everything aboutThe Age of Shadows and how it flows feels so rounded all thanks to what had been put into place at the hands of Kim Jee-woon, because he keeps every last tone just as rich as the other, and the sudden shift in some way manages to add more to where one tone ends – and more of a sense of gracefulness comes in as the unexpected begins to come by with what the film turns into as one minute you can get something slow-moving and the next, you get something so quick and brutal.
There’s much to praise already from just how gorgeous The Age of Shadows is whether it be from the visual standpoint or the structuring of such a story, but the performances are worthy of note as always. Song Kang-ho’s turn in The Age of Shadows is nothing less than impressive, but given the comedic flair to his role in another Kim Jee-woon effort, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it is nice to see how he transforms into something much more classy. Gong Yoo offers an impressive supporting role as resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin, but one of the most interesting turns that hit me was Um Tae-goo’s performance as a Japanese officer. He devotes himself to the Japanese language to turn him into a figure that drives the film at the same time, but the image he creates in character also creates a mark that the film would not have worked so well without.
South Korean cinema and their tendencies to head out for an extreme generally makes me interested in where they wish to go when it comes to moving past boundaries, but to find something more refined especially from a filmmaker who has went to these extremes in his past (pointing towards I Saw the Devil and A Bittersweet Life), it was a nice change of pace and it also stood out as an effort to define the year. A film as thought-provoking as it is also hugely entertaining, The Age of Shadows once again adds to Kim Jee-woon’s impressive body of work and his versatility as one of South Korea’s most exciting voices in film today. A refined work, but something that still bears the mark of the stylist responsible.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Screenplay by Lee Jin-sook
Produced by Choi Jeong-hwa
Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Um Tae-goo, Han Ji-min, Gong Yoo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 139 minutes