The Age of Shadows (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
To bomb Japanese facilities during Japan’s occupation of Korea, a seemingly straightforward goal in which the plot revolves around but writer-director Jee-woon Kim manages to helm an impressive historical spy-thriller in “The Age of Shadows,” a must-see for those entertained by suspense, interesting characters, and stunning set pieces. Here is a film that doesn’t waste a second, a beat, or pause—it makes a point that these elements can make the difference between success and failure in the tricky underworld of espionage.
Pictures from the west tend to be defined in a pre-packaged manner in that the audience can recognize immediately between the good guys from the bad even before the opening credits. This film, however, takes the time to establish a relationship with the viewers by simply presenting characters in specific situations. It asks us to consider who we think the central protagonist should be, whether the cause in which he is a part of worth rooting for, and if their endgame was something that we’d like to see come to fruition. From the get-go, the film drenches us into its world. By the end, we feel as exhausted as its characters, not because of its two-and-a-half hour running time, but because their harrowing journey is finally completed. Their nail-biting experience, never traversing a straight line, is shared with ours.
Kang-ho Song and Yoo Gong play Korean men, Lee Jung-Chool and Kim Woo-Jin, who find themselves in a country occupied by foreigners. Lee has chosen to work with the Japanese as a police captain while Kim helps to lead the resistance against the Japanese while masquerading as an antique shop owner. Their relationship, especially during the first half, fascinates because their interactions liken that of a chess game: every move is calculated and one mistake proves to lead to dire consequences. I found it amazing that a quick nod or a suspicious look can turn the plot over its head—which is most exciting.
Those expecting standard action sequences are sure to be disappointed. While there are scenes involving shootouts, they are not choreographed in such a way that communicates violence is beautiful. On the contrary, it is shown as ugly, often occurring in quick bursts, messy, painful, at times tragic, sometimes necessary. I admired that right after these moments of catharsis, it is back to strategically moving the pieces on the board. Clearly, this is a movie for those who enjoy being completely immersed in a world. In a way, it teaches us how to think like a spy. It is a film about men defined by what they do and they happen to do what they do well enough to be thoroughly intriguing specimens.
With each passing minute the screws tighten. “The Age of Shadows” moves quickly and stealthily; its atmosphere thick with implications and suspicions; and it entertains under the assumption that the person watching is intelligent and has a knack for nuance. I found myself constantly leaning toward the screen, squinting at seemingly curious lines, attempting to capture strange behavior. I felt like I was studying something clever up close and having the best time doing so.