Release Date: January 29th, 2013 (South Korea)
Running Time: 120 mins.
Director: Ryoo Seung-Wan
Writer: Ryoo Seung-Wan
Starring: Ha Jung-Woo, Gianna Jun, Han Suk-Kyu, Ryoo Seung-Bum, Lee Kyoung-Young
I love spy films as my reviews of Skyfall, and Salt reveal. I also liked the Korean spy thriller Shiri. When the chance to see The Berlin File at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival came up I leapt for it.
The film opens stylishly with grainy footage and rapid cutting of espionage activities such as the creation of fake passports, code breaking and physical violence. It all begins to focus on a menacing man walking down grim streets and into his apartment where he self-administers medication. He is Pyo Jong-Sung (Ha Jung-Woo), the number one North Korean agent in the service and known as “the Hero of the Republic”.
Three hours ago he was at the Grand Westin Hotel with a Russian arms broker and a terrorist from the Independent Arab League. The meeting is being monitored by South Korean NIS agents led by veteran spy Jung Jin-Soo (Han Suk-Kyu). Just as the transaction is about to go ahead Mossad agents burst in and a gunfight ensues. Amidst all of the chaos Pyo Jong-Sung attempts to escape the hotel but Jung Jin-Soo pursues him and the two fight on the hotel roof. Jung Jin-Soo loses his prey but this just increases his determination to take him out even if his bosses are losing confidence in him.
Blowing the operation would be bad enough for Pyo Jong-Sung but when he learns that Dong Myung-Soo (Ryoo Seung-Bum), a rival from home, has been sent by Pyongyang to Berlin in order to investigate the possibility of a defector working at the North Korean embassy he finds himself in a deadly situation that threatens to drag his wife Ryun Jung-Hee (Gianna Jun), an embassy translator, into harm’s way. His loyalty as a husband and spy are tested to the extreme as a series of betrayals and defections unfold and the NIS, CIA and North Korean spy agencies tussle over Pyo Jong-Sung and his wife who are trying to flee Berlin.
Visually the film falls in line with most spy thrillers. It looks and plays out a lot like The Bourne Supremacy with its wintry visual take on Berlin, all concrete and glass and shadowy alleys which brings out a melancholy greys and blues and mysterious blacks. It recreates a sense of the history of espionage in the city, all of the mistrust and east vs west politics that has taken place since the end of World War 2 when the city was split between democracy and communism. Placing modern spy powers like North and South Korea, Russian gun-runners and the CIA who all have mobiles and laptops updates things for a new age.
The characters operating in this new age of espionage are more pumped up action spies than what the old school Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy types but the plots are just as much about surveillance, paranoia and isolation.
“The most trustworthy is the one who should be watched the most.”
This line is delivered by Dong Myung-Soo with chilling menace but with everybody spying on everybody else (including their own bosses and subordinates) the film’s plot spins off into different areas and while never totally confusing (everything falls into place at the end) it becomes a barrier to actually identifying with the characters. Ultimately the plot is smart but it becomes so overloaded with events and angles that any attempts to build an emotional core to engage the viewer come off as weak and characters are all surface.
Pyo Jong-Sung could be a carbon copy of Jason Bourne with his direct and highly efficient persona but he is given little else to do except take a battering and look troubled. Likewise Gianna Jun is rather wasted as a wife at the end of her tether at being in this brutal world. Actually, all of the characters felt rather generic apart from Jung Jin-Soo who gets some very funny lines. More could have been made of the personal battle faced by Pyo Jong-Sung over how to deal with accusations of disloyalty aimed at him and his wife or about the issue of the families left behind in North Korea and under threat from the regime to add a more human element to capture interest. Bourne was gripping because the agent was very vulnerable thanks to his memory loss and his isolation. Bond was interesting because it was about him growing old as a character. The relationship between the central couple in The Berlin File could have been explored more but the very nature of the film with its focus on a means that the emotional moments lack the potency to suffuse events with any greater meaning so all we’re left with is action. Thankfully I cannot fault it on this side.
The Berlin File has a lot of excellent bone-crunching action scenes and thrilling gun-fights. Like many Korean action films such as The Man From Nowhere, the technical aspects like the editing, camera work are clean and energetic. They display the fights as fierce battles between pros who know how to use their bodies, the environment and nearby objects. We see the actors look totally cool and tough as they engage in some of the most brutal and stylish fights in recent cinema. The hand to hand combat is done with enough force and speed that it comes off as real, hard and spontaneous and the final fight in a wide open field is a real highlight. You have to respect the vision of the choreographers and the actors performing this stuff. The audience laughed and gasped at different moments and don’t expect to look at a can of food again without seeing a deadly weapon.
Ultimately This tale of North and South Korean agents in Berlin tangled up in a Bourne style multi-agency web of deceit is undeniably highly stylish but dull. Where it fails is the byzantine plot which, while being rather intelligent, feels bloated and created distance instead of any real emotional engagement. I was genuinely surprised at how little I felt at the end of events.