Korean director Kim Jee-woon may be playing it safe with THE AGE OF SHADOWS. Now if only Hollywood could play it safe like this

Remember that, just a few years ago, Korean genrebusting action movies were all the rage, thanks to directors such as Park Chan-wook (Old Boy), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) or Kim Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life)? Where did that go?

It may have never gone anywhere — we just stopped looking for them. Hence the sense that The Age of Shadows is a restart, when in fact it’s merely another step along the way: the return home of Kim Jee-woon after an ill-fated Hollywood visit directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand. A huge success in South Korea and the first local production to bear the Warner Bros. shield, The Age of Shadows earns no points for subtlety (as expected). It’s a big, brash, no-holds-barred trashy pulp thriller in good old fashioned manicheistic tradition; a preposterously convoluted series of double and triple crosses set under Japanese occupation in the late twenties, as a former rebel turned police official (the ever-reliable Song Kang-ho) chases the independence fighters preparing to attack the occupying army while beginning to wonder if he’s merely being played as a puppet.

Entirely fictional yet inspired by actual facts, it’s the sort of recruiting poster heroics that would have gone down a storm in WWII Hollywood, while prolonging Kim’s traditional theme of finding one’s place in life (not for nothing could this also be called A Bittersweet Life). So over-the-top that it draws way too close to indigestion, with its nearly 2 1/2 hour running time and constant narrative soap-opera switchbacks, The Age of Shadows never quite recaptures that sense of discovery we felt 15 years ago about Korean film, but in its stylistic daredevil-may-care approach, it gets close enough for us to remember why directors like Kim were hailed at the time.

Look no further than the film’s opening and closing setpieces — a breathless chase and shootout down a series of back alleys, a Hitchcockian slow-burn bombing that harks back to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds ending — to understand the sheer kinetic joy of well-shot, well-displayed action scenes. And just stop to enjoy The Age of Shadows’ virtuoso centerpiece, a whole act that takes entirely place in a moving train: expertly staged and edited, moving like a clockwork mechanism while advancing plot and character, it’s a superbly rendered moment of cinematic showmanship that reminds us that, even in crowd-pleasing, throwaway potboilers like this, Kim Jee-woon remains a stunning action director. 

For sure, The Age of Shadows is no Bittersweet Life, not even another Old Boy. But if this is what Kim Jee-woon thinks “playing it safe” is, let’s by all means keep playing it safe.

Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Written by Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae and Kim Jee-woon
Starring Song Kang-Ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Shingo Tsurumi, Lee Byung-Hin and Park Hee-soon
KR/CN, 2016, 140 minutes 
(Warner Bros. Korea/Finecut)


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