Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ryoo Seung-wan's THE BERLIN FILE: Korean cinema hits the bull's-eye yet again

Action fans, lovers of spy movies, aficionados of dark love stories, folk who can't get enough smart, fast-moving chase films: All of you can now praise heaven, South Korean version, for the first-class genre delight that opens this week. If THE BERLIN FILE sounds a little le Carré-ish, that's fine because it is, but better. (John le Carré's books, and most of the the movies made from them are intelligent and well-plotted but, with the exception of the recent Tinker,Tailor... rather slow-moving.) This film barrels ahead at such a pace that you'll barely keep up, relishing every fast-moving moment, lingering over nothing. Not, at least, until the finale, set in a field of golden wheat in which the sight of one of our heroes and the load he carries on his back may break your heart.

Once again, those Koreans do such a masterful job of combining, thrills, chills, humor, horror and heartbreak that no other country seems to come close. The filmmaker this time around is someone new to me: Ryoo Seung-wan, left, who directed and wrote the Korean dialog (the English dialog, surprise, was written by a fellow I actually know and respect, Ted Geoghagen). Mr Ryoo has been around now for some 15 years and in that time has directed ten films. Though this is the first I've seen, it's good enough to make me want to view the rest.

This spy movie plops us into what looks to be more or less present-day Berlin, where, within a few minutes, we've encountered everything from a secret room in the apartment behind the pantry, a coded message implanted in food from a local falafel stand, a very unlucky pickpocket, and a deadly hypodermic inside a... fish. Fun! The film's first heavy-duty set piece is an arms deal involving quite the international set: Germany, North Korea, some Arab country (or countries), with South Korea, the CIA and the Mossad viewing from afar but eventually getting noticeably hands-on.

There are lots of characters to keep straight, but the film does a decent job of differentiation, which helps enormously in movies like this. The two people we come to care most about are a husband (Ha Jung-woo, above, right) and wife (Gianna Jun, above, left), North Korean spies, based in Berlin, who come under suspicion of being traitors to the cause. The why and how of this does not come fully clear until more than halfway along, which makes the movie all the more interesting for our not really knowing for who we should be rooting.

The leading South Korea intelligence agent (Han Suk-kyu, above) rabidly hates the North and what it stands for: "A political deal with Commies? I don't even make left turns at intersections!" is how he puts it. (It's good to know the cold war is still alive and well.)

As our leading villain, whose actions grow scurvier as the movie proceeds, Ryoo Seung-beom (above) makes  a wily, creepy and very smart nemesis -- the kind of fellow for whom torture was invented (oh, no -- did I just say that?).

The plot, convoluted by follow-able, is great fun, and the action set pieces are as good as you'll see this year, I'd wager. In particular there's a superb and lengthy escape/fight/chase scene involving husband, wife and a most adept killer that will keep you on tenterhooks throughout.

Along the way, you'll pick up some interesting information. In the morgue for example, while trying to identify recently deceased killers, we learn that North Korean men are likely to be uncircumcised, while those in the South are evidently cut. Regarding defectors from the North, are they really given the choice  to go South or to some other U.N. sanctioned country? Interesting.

Coming in at just two hours, the film is on the short side of most South Korean cinema. Even at that length you will not be bored. And the film's lessons have less to do with politics and geography than with humanity and morality. "We're men; we betray" notes one character, whose words come back to bite him in the ass (or, in this case, the shoulder).

And once again we learn that, wherever in the world we find ourselves, Follow the money is always the best advice. The Berlin File, from CJ Enter-tainment, and as much fun as you're likely to find at the movies this month (maybe this year) opens Friday, February 15: in the New York City area at the AMC's Empire 25 and Bay Terrace; in New Jersey AMC Ridgefield Park, and Philadelphia at AMC Plymouth Meeting. It will also open simultaneously in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Honolulu -- with more locations yet to come. You can view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here.

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