The Age of Shadows
World War II is an important global historical event but, in British schools we only learn a Euro-centric version of the war focussing on British, French, German and American involvement in the conflict. However, it is was a world war and as such every part of the globe was involved, from the campaigns in Africa, to the fights in continental Asia. A part of history that has been ignored by British schools was how Japan, part of the Axis powers, behaved during the war. Of course we learnt about their illegal treatment of prisoners of war and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we never learnt that they had invaded and occupied Korea, how they subjugated its people and kidnapped its women.
Now that Korean Cinema has become popular in the west, we are finally getting a fresh perspective on events that took place 80 plus years ago. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is one such example, and now the director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good the Bad the Weird, Kim Jee-woon brings a biographical cloak-and-dagger picture set during Japanese-occupied Korea in The Age of Shadows.
The film follows a Korean police detective, Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), who acts as an interpreter and lead investigator into the Korean resistance, during the occupation of Korea by Japanese forces. He has a reputation as a turncoat who has no qualms in selling out his fellow countrymen. But when one of these resistance fighters, an old classmate, is killed, the leader of the resistance tasks Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) to apply appropriate pressure to turn Jung-chool into a double agent to help them smuggle explosives into Seoul. The Age of Shadows has a story that anyone who enjoys the intense mind games of John Le Carré will love. While it doesn't have that same oppressive cold war feel that can only be attained when reading the exploits of spy George Smiley, this film has enough sharp corners, twists and turns to make it an engaging and suspenseful spy movie.
Some people have complained that the film is overly long: at a run time of 135 minutes, and that it is a patriotic, shallow and hard-to-follow tale. I found this to be far from the truth. The runtime allows for a true slow burn that culminates in the most stylish climax I think I have ever seen in a movie. There are some elements of bias in the film, but Jee-woon is not afraid of showing some of the harsher realities when it comes to resistance fighting, especially during the well-executed train sequence. It also has some fantastic visuals. Cinematographer, Kim Ji-yuon, does a tremendous job with each shot dripping with atmosphere. There is great use of light shadow and smoke to create a wonderful air of mystery. The framing is also spectacular, Ji-yuon has a great eye for space, especially during the aforementioned train set-piece, which along with some beautiful production design makes The Age of Shadows a sumptuous thing to behold.
The story and visuals of this period piece wouldn't be worth a damn if there weren't any engaging performances to bring this film to life and thankfully there are some spellbinding performances from charismatic actors that pull you through the film by sheer force of personality alone. Viewers should recognise Song Kang-ho from The Host, and The Good the Bad the Weird as Lee Jung-chool, a police officer who is slowly pulled out of his depth by the resistance and an upstart policeman Hashimoto, played to villainous perfection by Uhm Tae-goo. Kang-ho is perhaps the perfect everyman actor; he excels at the gentle comedy required in a film like The Host, and it is this likeable nature that makes his sudden turns all the more heart-breaking and impactful, we truly feel for Kang-ho no matter who he is playing.
Kang-ho is backed by a great cast of Korean and Japanese actors; Hashimoto's barely contained rage is played to a T by Uhm Tae-goo, while Lee Byung-hun, best known for his roles in I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life and more recently, The Magnificent Seven (2016) , shows up briefly but is none-the-less memorable as the leader of the Korean resistance Che-san, and Shigo Tsurumi as police chief Higashi is a joy to watch, thanks to his careful calculating performance. However, it is Kang-ho's foil, a key member of the Korean resistance Kim Woo-jin, played by Gong Yoo (The Train to Busan) that is the other standout performance. Woo-jin, thanks to Gong Yoo's stellar acting, is captivating, especially during the tenser scenes.
Each aspect of the film is wonderful, from the performances to the cinematography, editing and score. Thunderbird Releasing is responsible for the release of this absolutely cracking film, and they have done a great job with it. There are no visual or audio errors on the disc and they have created a user-friendly disc with optional English subtitles. There is a lack of extras, and only the international trailer on the disc but the main feature is so good, that I can excuse them that. This is a film that was made for 1080p as shadows are richer, deeper and you can more easily see the subtle play of light, shadow, and smoke that completes the feel of this 1920s-set spy thriller.
Overall The Age of Shadows is spellbinding, a film that is a captivating journey through the light and shade of 1920s Korea, with some of the most engaging characters I have seen in this genre. It shines on Blu-ray, despite the fact that it lacks any other form of extra, other than a trailer. I know that usually I would say the opposite, but pick this film up if you get the chance, no bonus features be damned, it is a great movie and I will sing its praises from the rooftops, so that it doesn't languish in the shadows for too long.
The Age of Shadows will be released on Blu-ray and DVD July 10th