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‘Age of Shadows’: The Best Western Movie of the Year Is a Korean Thriller

Full of Oscar ambition, Kim Jee-woon's latest is an excellent spy story and a so-so depiction of Korea's fight for independence.

In a Q&A after the screening of his newest film, Age of Shadows, Korean director Kim Jee-woon defined film genres by fear: fear of love (romance), fear of change (horror), fear of the future (science fiction). But in his latest, a spy thriller about the Japanese occupation of Korea, Kim finds himself concerned with the complicated relationship between the individual and their country.

Demonstrating this theme in earnest, Age of Shadows follows a Korean police chief Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho of The Host and Snowpiercer) who's sold out his nationalist brethren to the Japanese colonial regime for his own personal gain, but begins to question his decisions and loyalty to the ruling class after meeting an idealistic resistance fighter, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, the unrealistically good-looking star of Train to Busan and Coffee Prince).

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Age of Shadows is stylish and stylized, as is typical of modern Korean cinema, with beautiful costumes and scenery, several excellent fight scenes, and a visually palpable tension. It wastes no time getting to the action, opening with a lone resistance fighter pursued across tiled rooftops by dozens upon dozens of Japanese soldiers; after being shot in the foot he hides out in a shed and (spoiler alert!) pulls his own toe off—a grotesque gesture of things to come.

Despite being set in the '20s, in its best moments the film feels like a mashup of John le Carré Cold War intrigue and Sergio Leone spaghetti Western (Kim also directed the Western sendup The Good, the Bad and the Weird). The director speaks at length about elevating the meaning of his films beyond mere entertainment, but even while Age of Shadows succeeds as a solid spy movie, it's also mired by the trappings of an action movie. Yeon (Han Ji-min), the film's only female character, is largely a token, the green M&M of the Korean independence movement. Taken as a whole, the film is certainly patriotic, perhaps even nationalistic. Although much of the Western world has forgotten the role that Japan played as a major colonial power in Asia less than a century ago, the countries it occupied, including Korea, are still grappling with this aspect of modern history, and Age of Shadows is one expression of that.

The reality is that the director knows how to stage a dramatic Western-style standoff better than addressing a nation's ghosts.

With this in mind, its portrayal of the time period isn't exactly nuanced: All the resistance fighters are tall, handsome, and willing to die for their country without a second thought; Japanese characters are either old or creepy, almost caricatures of evil, including a sneaky and vicious intelligence officer with a thin, sparse mustache and a Marlon-Brando-as-Vito-Corleone voice. One can't fault Kim for his attempts to elevate South Korea's history through a vehicle with worldwide commercial appeal, but the reality is that the director knows how to stage a dramatic Western-style standoff better than addressing a nation's ghosts.

The balance also works the other way. While Age of Shadows' patriotic themes risk being overly sentimental, the violence and the perfectly choreographed fight scenes keep it in check; the overtly political time and place that Kim chose as a setting render the film inherently weighty, but the action and sly humor propel the film and keep it entertaining. These are difficult boundaries to walk in such an ambitious film—the first Hollywood-produced Korean-language film, with Oscar ambitions to boot—but Age of Shadows navigates them deftly, like a troop of Japanese soldiers running across the peak of a slate roof in the dead of night.

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