The Age of Shadows
Jee-woon Kim’s The Age of Shadows is set in the 1920s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Kang-ho Song plays Lee Jung-Chool, a Japanese police officer investigating a plot by the Korean resistance involving selling counterfeit antiques in order to raise the cash to import explosives from a Hungarian anarchist group. He is teamed up with an ultra-zealous younger partner named Hashimoto (Tae-goo Eom) who marshals a network of spies within the resistance.
However, Jung-Chool has a skeleton in his closet: he’s a former member of the resistance himself. While following up on some leads he meets with one of the antique forgers - Kim Woo-Jin (Yoo Gong) - and realises that he’s speaking with one of his old friends. He soon finds himself divided between loyalty to the occupying power who are his employers, and the friend who is part of the organisation who opposes them.
The Age of Shadows is, in many ways, the ideal companion piece to Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden. Both are epic period pieces set during the Korean Peninsula’s Japanese occupation era. Both revolve around the themes of deception, subterfuge and ambiguities as to where allegiances lie. Both are visually sumptuous and filled with impeccably-composed imagery. However, both are rather different in the focus and feel of scenes unfolding in front of the viewer’s eyes. The Handmaiden is more of a love story and a study of period female oppression, albeit one that dips its toes in various other genres during its runtime, in that fanciful manner peculiar to Korean cinema. The Age of Shadows, however, is more of an action-thriller, albeit presented on a rather elaborate canvas. While it isn’t as perfectly formed a film as Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece it’s still a fine piece of entertainment.
Its begins in grand fashion as a resistance member is systematically cornered in a small town by a group of armed officers under the command of Lee Jung-Chool. Their dramatic flight over the town’s rooftops is covered in spectacular fashion via a wide angle shot sweeping over the scene in the effortless manner of a gliding bird. It’s intercut with tracking shots of their quarry darting frantically through the maze of narrow streets. It all culminates in plentiful gunfire and a gruesome moment involving a severed toe. It’s one of numerous moments where director displays an unbridled kinetic flair for action and a suitably nauseous eye for gruesome effects.
The first half does get bogged down in some overly convoluted plotting amid the bursts of action, suffering from too many jumps between locations and characters as per the early scenes in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, once these characters and their various intertwining relationships are placed on more solid footing, the film becomes an involving cat-and-mouse thriller with a grand Hitchcockian centrepiece aboard a train travelling from Shanghai to Seoul. A scene in the buffet car where one character is on the cusp of a major (potentially life-threatening) discovery is a masterpiece of carefully telling shot framing and slow-burning tension.
It’s not just during the action sequences where Jee-woon Kim’s direction excels. There are a number of bravura shots (one of the best being a seamless transition between two sides of an opulent window overlooking a crowded dining room) and some decidedly noir-influenced night-time scenes that display a consummate grasp of atmosphere and stylised visual grace. However, the lavish period detail and excellent casting also contribute a lot to the film. Shanghai’s busy, ramshackle streets of the period are reconstructed with startling realism, as is the period train with its impressively opulent first class car. Kang-ho Song turns in the finest performance here as an initially gruffly loyal officer who gradually becomes more complex and emotionally nuanced as the film goes on. However Tae-goo Eom as his hotheaded, intensely ambitious younger partner isn’t far behind, as he renders his somewhat cliched character into a genuinely intimidating steely-gazed presence (despite his rather quaint moustache). Sparks fly believably between the pair as their relationship evolves throughout the film.
While the more violent aspects here aren’t for everyone, fans of Jee-woon Kim’s other films (such as A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil) should feel right at home.
Runtime: 140 mins
Dir: Jee-woon Kim
Script: Jee-woon Kim
Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Yoo Gong, Kang-ho Song, Ji-min Han, Hee-soon Park, Foster Burden, Shingo Tsurumi, Tae-goo Eom