Directed by Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life), The Age of Shadows is a stylish, occasionally brutal espionage thriller set in late 1920s Seoul during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, Thirst) stars as Lee Jeong-chool, a Korean born captain with the Japanese police who is charged with infiltrating a local resistance group led by Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) and preventing their attempts to transport explosives purchased from Hungarian anarchists from Shanghai to Seoul. As an added layer of complication Lee’s commander insists that he work alongside his volatile colleague and professional rival Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) throughout the mission, suggesting a lack of trust in the Korean born captain’s loyalty to his Japanese employers.
Knowing that Kim maintains a front as a merchant trading in antiques and Korean historical artefacts, Lee approaches the younger man under the guise of selling him a Korean Buddhist statuette. Kim is immediately sceptical but he invites Lee to join him for a drink. The ensuing conversation simmers with John le Carré-esque suspicion and double meaning as the two clever, careful men probe one another for weaknesses while maintaining a façade of drunken candour and brotherly affection. Underlying it all are the beginnings of a mutual respect that will play a vital role in guiding both characters future actions.
When Kim and his fellow resistance fighters suddenly flee Seoul for Shanghai after being tipped off by Hashimoto’s clumsy attempt at tradecraft Lee is dispatched to follow and join their ranks by pretending that a recently renewed patriotism inspired him to turn on the Japanese. Resistance leader Jeong Chae-san (Lee Byung-hun) sees through this subterfuge immediately but instructs Kim to go along with it anyway and try to convert Lee to their cause for real. The three men sit down to share a meal and proceed to consume a prodigious amount of alcohol in a montage sequence that director Kim Jee-woon stretches out to a point of almost unbearable tension. Song Kang-ho has the gift of revealing his characters innermost thoughts and feelings through minute modulations in facial expression and you can see Lee weighing options and alternatives in his mind throughout the meal.
By the time Lee and Hashimoto pursue Kim and his fellow resistance fighters (including a beautiful and resourceful female agent played by Han Ji-min) onto a passenger train bound for Seoul it’s unclear where the Korean captain’s loyalties lie. The film’s high point is the thirty minute long action set piece that follows as Lee and Kim are forced to work together to uncover a suspected double agent amoungst Kim’s group whilst evading detection by Hashimoto and his cronies. The fact that the resistance fighters all have dangerously sensitive explosives concealed in their luggage that could detonate at the slightest physical shock and kill everyone on board only adds to the suspense.
The train sequence also acts as a tonal transition between the film noir moodiness of The Age of Shadows’ first half and its action-packed second half, which includes some very graphic torture scenes that recall the visceral body-horror of previous Kim Jee-woon films like I Saw the Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters. This transition can perhaps be justified on the grounds that The Age of Shadows contains none of the moral and thematic ambiguity of traditional film noir. The Japanese occupiers, embodied by the black clad, subordinate slapping, tantrum throwing Hashimoto are unquestionably wrong, while the Korean resistance, embodied by the brave, thoughtful, heroically loyal Kim are unquestionably right. Lee Jeong-chool may struggle with an inner conflict between pragmatism and self-preservation vs. patriotism and self-respect, but there’s never any doubt over which side is morally superior.
Kim Jee-woon and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong do fully embrace the dreamy, tenebrous visual style of film noir, giving us gorgeous scenes like a rain-splattered, clandestine car chase through the streets of Shanghai. Jee-woon also has a lot of fun with the film’s soundtrack, most notably during an extremely violent montage showing the Japanese police taking out various members of the resistance that is accompanied by the sanguine sounds of Louis Armstrong singing When You’re Smiling. Song Kang-ho’s grounded, complex lead performance is the standout but Gong Yoo is also very good as Kim Woo-jin. The actor is charismatic enough to be credible as someone who inspired others to risk their safety, freedom and lives in service to a patriotic cause and manages to find the right balance of tenacity and vulnerability so that his character comes across as heroic but still human.
An impressive, self-assured effort from one of modern cinema’s most versatile filmmakers, The Age of Shadows is well worth your time.