The writer/director of this South Korean action thriller, Ryu Seung-wan (who has four previous releases under his belt) admits his plot is a bit complicated; before continuing to say jokingly that it’s not his fault but that of the delicate political situation in his divided home country. He assures audiences that if they concentrate for the first half of the film, they’ll be rewarded with a rollercoaster ride in the second half. That’s a pretty good summation of what we get in the 120 minutes runtime.
When an illicit arms deal between North Korea’s top ‘ghost’ operative Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) and an Arabian terrorist group ends in violent confusion, he barely makes it out alive. On his trail is South Korean agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu). A tangled web of betrayal and deceit is uncovered that forces the rival agents together. Things get personal when a top North Korean fixer Dong Myung-soo (Ryu Seung-beom) labels Pyo’s wife, who works as an interpreter at the embassy, as the traitor responsible for the deal going wrong. Pyo must then decide where his true commitment lies.
His conflicting loyalties and relationship with wife Ryeon-Jung-hee (played by Jeon Ji-hyun) are key elements of the film. Director Seung-wan believes that it doesn’t matter how spectacular action scenes are, if the characters lack emotional depth or involvement then the film feels empty and the plot loses its essence. If only more directors thought that way…
Jong-seong is good at portraying the emotional struggle Pyo goes through, especially in some poignant scenes at the movie’s climax. Ji-hyun as his wife complements his performance admirably. Whilst researching for the screenplay, Seung-wan managed to interview an actual former North Korean agent who’d defected to the South. He found out that North Korean agents who get sent abroad are the cream of the party’s operatives. They’re trained from a young age to put their country and its ideologies first and suppress everything else, including their emotions. Seung-wan wanted to show what happened when someone with this mentality, Pyo, realises that how he lives and who he lives with are more important than political ideology.
There’s plenty of frenetic action to meat out the complex plot. A fight between Pyo and Dong with the two silhouetted against the sky is particularly memorable. Piece of trivia, Seung-beom (a prolific South Korean actor with many TV and film credits) who plays Dong is the director’s younger brother.
Suk-kyu as the South Korean agent Jung is adequate but his performance doesn’t reach the same levels as that of Jung-woo. It’s John Keogh, playing Marty a C.I.A. operative and long term collaborator of Jung, who is the weakest cast member with a hammy reading.
Seung-wan’s tight directing keeps the movie flowing nicely, the lulls between the bursts of action never drag or feel like padding. Every scene has a purpose and holds the viewer’s attention. Whilst the plot has an open ending, there are no plans for a sequel, it was ended this way to make sure it stuck in the audience’s minds when they left the screening as in South Korea most cinemas are in shopping malls so there’s a lot to distract audience members when they exit.
If you like Asian cinema, and/or action films that don’t treat the viewer like an idiot, I recommend you give The Berlin File a go.
Director: Ryu Seung-wan
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Han Suk-kyu, Ryu Seung-beom, Jeon Ji-hyun, John Keogh
Runtime: 120 mins
Country: South Korea