'The Age of Shadows'
A mixture of searing historical drama and rip-roaring action adventure, ‘The Age of Shadows’ from director Kim Jee-woon (‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, ‘I Saw the Devil’) bursts off the screen with entertainment and intrigue. It’s either a genre movie smuggled inside a prestige picture or the mixture goes the other way around. Regardless, there’s no denying the artistry or entertainment value of this brilliantly made epic.
Some directors might sulk and lick their wounds after the failed Hollywood transition that Kim attempted with the underrated ‘The Last Stand’. Instead, he returned to Korea and doubled down with his most serious and ambitious movie to date, if not quite his best.
The setting is 1920s Korea during the Japanese occupation. The hero (or the closest thing to one) is Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho from ‘The Host’ and ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’), who works as a detective for the Japanese police to hunt down and capture Korean resistance fighters. He’s a good cop, but not entirely committed given that he supports the resistance’s cause. Eventually, he’s invited to join the resistance ranks working from the inside to sabotage any investigation and feed the right people information. It works for a while, but obviously playing double agent doesn’t work very well.
The production is gorgeously mounted with sweeping sets and flowing costumes to pull viewers into the unique setting and story. Kim Jee-woon is a visual master and delights in piling up set-pieces whether they be of the paranoid spy variety or just good old-fashioned balls-out action. Like most of the filmmaker’s other works, there are times that the movie plays like a giddy thrill ride. However, the subject matter is more somber, politically charged and relevant than, say, ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Weird’. The director’s usual humor is a bit more subdued and his skill with spectacle comes with serious intent. This is more traditionally “important” storytelling, but Kim knows that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a hell of a good time.
Performances are top-notch, especially from Song Kang-ho, who goes through a painful emotional odyssey over the course of the twisted tale. Kim’s usual star Lee Byung-hun is cast to type as the resistance’s charismatic leader/folk hero. As thrilling and tense as the film can feel, it’s also a deeply tragic and painful affair with all of Japan’s historical torture techniques trotted out for brutal sequences. While Kim might be a master of stylized cinematic violence, he’s also willing to challenge action movie morality and embrace the messy viciousness of real life violence. It suits the story, but will certainly put some viewers off. However, at this point, everyone pretty much knows what they’re getting themselves into with a Korean genre flick, so it shouldn’t be too surprising.
Kim Jee-woon is one of Korea’s master filmmakers. His grandiose historical action epic delivers brutal drama and exciting thrills at such a fever pitch that audiences should walk out feeling both exhausted and elated.