Film Review: The Age of Shadows (South Korea, 2016)

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South Korean Director Jee-woon Kim’s film credits comprise an impressive catalogue of thrilling action films. His balls to the wall 2005 film A Bittersweet Life is still one of my favourite action movies; he’s payed homage to Sergio Leonne with The Good, The Bad, The Weird and in 2013 he teamed with Arnold Schwarzenegger for his Hollywood debut The Last Stand. Now he’s back in his home land, joined by some familiar faces for a 1920’s spy thriller.

The Age of Shadows is a fictional tale, set in Korea during its Japanese rule in the late 20s’. As Japan plans to end Korea’s way of life, a Korean resistance group moves in the shadows with a mission to transport bombs from Shanghai, in order to destroy Japanese HQ in Korea. Both sides are played against each other by spies, deciet and greed.

Kim helms his period piece with relative ease, turning a potential convoluted plot into easily accessible entertainment. That isn’t to imply that it resembles a Hollywood blockbuster – it certainly lets its torrid narrative chew most of the screen time, its players forging an increasingly dangerous situation with flared tempers and crisp dialogue.

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Much of this can be attributed to Yoo Gong and Kang-Ho Song. Gong (after his terrific showing in Train to Busan) plays Kim Woo-Jin, the top agent of the resistance, opposite Song’s Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean born, Japanese officer in charge of the case. The two make a fantastic pair, Gong playing a cool, unaffected fighter who fervently believes in the cause and Song tip-toeing the line between the law and his pride. Song is a real treat to watch, constantly being torn in two different directions and displaying it both physically and emotionally.

Tae-Goo Um, in his first starring role is fantastic too as Hashimoto, Jung Chool’s partner. As passionate about completing his mission as Woo-Jin is his own, he is equal parts deplorable. Rather than an overt characterisation however, his temperament is discovered gradually as the situation gets dire.

Kim undoubtedly has a knack for action too and in The Age of Shadows, he sprinkles a hint of suspense into the proceedings that bubbles until the bullets start flying. A lengthy scene on a train is a masterwork in suspense that climaxes with a violent showdown.

Much of the shootouts – and scenes I wont mention here to avoid spoilers – are violent. This isn’t a PG-13 film used to placate families. No, when things get loud, things get messy but there is a line between gratuitous and justified and The Age of Shadows manages to stay on the right side of it. This is John Woo style-action without the doves. I’ve always found Asian Cinema handles its action much more gracefully, imbuing it  with a striking touch of of emotion and poetry. The Age of Shadows does nothing to detract from that.

Regardless of Jee-woon Kim’s genre of choice however, there is no denying how well crafted the edge-of your-seat factor is in The Age of Shadows. Kim also wrote the film so its no surprise that the blending of genres tie in so seamlessly.

The Age of Shadows is a brilliant film. From the outset to the credits, Kim has drafted a wonderful range of actors to drive home his gripping period drama. The action is less obligatory and more necessary due to a tense, gripping story that will leave you rooting for everything to pan out. Too bad Kim continuously throws a multitude of spanners in the works that gives any viewer a reason to be exhausted by the end.

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Age of Shadows opens in Australian cinemas on November 3, 2016.

Article by Ryan Champion, originally published on The Iris.