Infiltrate and deceive.
If you were to ask me who the best directors are working today, there are only a handful of names that would come immediately to mind: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, Lukas Moodysson, David Lynch. One name that’s absolutely part of that conversation is Kim Jee-Woon, the South Korean filmmaker responsible for some of the best movies of the 2000s, including A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, the Bad, the Weird and I Saw the Devil. So why is it that his latest effort, the period drama The Age of Shadows, was quietly released earlier this year with very little fanfare and snuck its way onto Blu-ray? A new Kim Jee-woon film should be an event. This one wasn’t, and as frustrated as I am by that fact, I can, having seen it, kind of get why.
The great Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer) plays Lee Jung-chool, a Korean police captain who answers to the Japanese and is tasked with rooting out members of the Korean resistance during the 1920s. When a former classmate-turned-rebel is killed before being captured, Song begins to experience a crisis of conscience. Resistance leader Che-san (Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil) senses this weakness and tries to get Song working for the rebellion, teaming him with shop owner Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, most recently seen in Train to Busan) to help smuggle explosives in from China. As Song tries to decide where his own allegiances lie, Che-san and Kim must keep the resistance alive despite increasing pressure from the cops and the possibility of a double agent within their own ranks. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted.
After taking a brief detour inside the Hollywood system directing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback movie The Last Stand in 2013, The Age of Shadows (formerly Secret Agent, a title that’s really no more or less generic) returns Kim to Korea for a story that’s not only set in his homeland but also very much about it. With an incredible cast and an impressive sweep, this feels like the closest Kim has ever made to a traditional historical epic (yes, there was a sense of epic to The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but it was more like a tall tale than a conventional period piece). It doesn’t always seem to suit the filmmaker, who has certainly made smaller, character-driven films as much as he has sprawling ensemble movies but who here can’t quite strike the proper balance between the two. The Age of Shadows is impeccably directed and always engaging, though at a certain point in the movie’s luxurious 140-minute runtime the movie starts to repeat itself. This is a common concern in movies that deal heavily with spies and intrigue; rather than advancing the story, the movies just continue to explore the one problem that’s introduced early on. Still, thanks to some moral complexity surrounding Song’s detective and a strong relationship between him and Gong, the film overcomes some of that repetition and remains consistently watchable.
The centerpiece of The Age of Shadows in an extended sequence on board a train that is unknowingly transporting explosives and the characters are sure that there is double agent in one of the cars. This is Kim at his best, ratcheting up the suspense and boiling the tension to an almost unbearable point. There are enough moments like this in The Age of Shadows that it feels like a Kim Jee-woon movie, though some of the connective tissue isn’t as thrilling or kinetic as his work so often is. It’s a movie that shows so many signs of his directorial mastery but then will occasionally feel inert, which is a word I’ve never before associated with Kim. That makes The Age of Shadows very difficult to talk about, because it’s a movie that’s quite good while still arguably being Kim’s weakest effort to date. If you’re as big a fan of his movies as I am, hopefully that distinction makes sense.
The Blu-ray of The Age of Shadows comes from Warner Bros. (the studio’s first-ever Korean production) in a bare-bones edition that presents the feature in a very attractive 2.40:1 widescreen transfer in full 1080p HD. Colors are strong and the often-dark image boasts an impressive amount of detail without succumbing to crush; while a few bigger moments fall short — namely some CGI fire near the film’s end — those are a result of budget restrictions and not the fault of the HD transfer. Four lossless audio tracks are offered, two LCPM and two DTS-HD tracks, two in the original Korean and two with an English dub. I didn’t bother to listen to the English tracks, but the Korean language ones have a nice amount of dimensionality and range. English subtitles are optional. The special features are spare and disappointing, with only two promotional interviews included: the first with director Kim and the second with a couple members of the cast. A standard definition DVD copy of the movie is also included.
The Age of Shadows is a good movie from a great filmmaker, and if I’m disappointed in the movie it’s only because I have come to expect more from Kim Jee-woon. The characters are fairly well drawn, but the political intrigue sometimes bogs the movie down in repetitive exposition. When it comes alive in an action sequence, that’s when Kim shines best. That South Korea chose to advance this movie as their entry in last year’s Oscars shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is exactly the kind of movie that tends to win awards. Unfortunately, that means Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden was shut out of the race, and that’s a stone-cold classic. The Age of Shadows will have to settle for being handsome and engaging, but falls short of greatness.