• Golden Globe Awards

The Age of Shadows (Korea)

From its first frame, the look and feel of this film seem strangely familiar: murderous thugs in uniform cruelly torment better looking victims who heroically resist their oppressors in France, Poland, Norway…you name it. One almost hears commands and shouts like “Schnell, schnell!” or “Du Schweinehund”. Only this is not one of the Nazi-movies we are so used to, the oppressors are Japanese and the oppressed country is Korea.That this Asian version feels like a standard-fare Nazi-film is certainly no coincidence. The title The Age of Shadows is a clear reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterpiece about the French Resistance during WWII: Army of Shadows. Japan ruled Korea from the so-called Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 until the end of World War Two, in 1945. And as the production notes reveal, Kim Jee-woon’s film is based loosely on a real-life plot to blow up a Japanese police station in 1923.The main protagonist of this spy thriller is Lee Jung-chool, a police captain working within the Japanese police force. He is the center of all the concealed maneuvers in the dangerous and shady world of Shadows. But he is not a solid center. On the contrary, he is the personification of moral ambiguity: since he is Korean he has been chosen to infiltrate and root out the clandestine actions of the Korean resistance. But since he is Korean his Japanese overlords are suspicious he might not be truly loyal to the oppression forces.The police aaptain is a “shadow” under constant observation by other “shadows”. Surrounded by a whirlwind of actions beyond his control and tortured by conflicting loyalties, the police captain symbolizes a man torn between two allegiances that are diametrically opposed. Kim Jee-woon delivers 140 minutes of meticulously executed suspense. One of the plot devices is an antique shop run by the leader of the resistance who tries with increasing success to change the Korean policeman, officially his pursuer, to his accomplice or at least inactive bystander.  In the style of an Hitchcockian nail-biter Kim gathers all the players on a train which is used to smuggle explosives from Shanghai to Seoul. Here Kim, a stickler for precisely choreographed violent actions, shifts the film into high gear.The film has a B-movie feel. But the elaborate set designs, the fast-paced editing and the high-minded ambition of the film make it an engaging and entertaining experience.