Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Ryoo Seung-bum, Han Suk-kyu, Jeon Ji-hyun
When an arms deal goes horribly out of control, North Korean agent Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) barely makes it out alive. Little does he know that from that deal gone bad he will have a South Korean investigator (Han Suk-kyu) on his trail, factions of the wronged parties, Mossad, and the arrival of another North Korean agent (Ryoo Seung-beom) tasked with investigating his loyalties, and that of his wife’s (Jeon Ji-hyun) to the People’s Republic and ideals. As he finds himself cornered at every turn, the remarkably resilient Jong-seong must use all of the skills he has learned to stay alive and discover the real truth behind the state of the espionage game in Berlin.
Action auteur Ryoo Seung-wan helms this terrifically entertaining and adrenaline fueled thrill ride filmed almost entirely in Berlin. Taking a cue from modern Western action cinema, Ryoo is clearly influenced by the vastly popular Bourne films from Universal Studios. Quick cuts and tense moments populate the film and a large number of physical acting is one display. Scenes of investigation and the search for bugs are carefully crafted and advance the plot well. It is a tight production that occasionally veers away from the film’s focus but quickly returns to important development and action.
The action itself is pretty damn exciting. The setpieces range from foot chases, weapon fights, barehanded exchanges, and a great enclosed room gunfight. Offering a lot of variety, the action is for the most part realistic with quick exchanges and hard hits. Improvisation in the middle of battle is key in these scenes, and the ‘quick on your feet’ decisions add to spontaneity and immersion to the action. Production is top-notch with good choreography, good prop use, and so many hard falls care of great stuntmen. It is a polished picture that uses broad strokes to make it accessible but at the same time maintains its Korean sensibility despite the locale.
Ha delivers a brawny performance as Jong-seong. He’s tough, intuitive, and beset upon in such a way that you can’t help but root for him despite his initially blind adherence to North Korean indoctrination. He doesn’t grow as much in the film as he lets his character’s personality and motivations be revealed. Han Suk-kyu return to action cinema in a great performance as an intelligence officer who wheels and deals behind the scenes for info on Jong-seong. His English is not as great as I would have hoped, but his accent isn’t too distracting and he rolls with the international cast well. Ryoo Seung-beom steals the show; as he is typically want to do, as the North Korean agent sent to take a look into Jong-seong and his wife’s loyalties. His machinations are predicated on the knowledge that he has been through the same training as Jong and what results is a chess match of sorts with him using vastly more pieces than is available to Ha’s character. Their showdown is long in coming but well worth the wait. Jeon Ji-hyun handles her scenes well but she serves more as an anchor for Ha’s Jong-seong. Clearly unhappy with the assignment out of country she is unsure about her husband’s feelings and while she does get into trouble, she isn’t as helpless as a role like this would suggest. Proud and beautiful, she is every bit a war hero’s wife, with the tragic elements as well.
In the end, The Berlin File is big budget action cinema done well. Not really a gamechanger in a broad sense, it does herald a turn for Korean film in that global accessibility has influenced the creative talent of their cinema. Breaking box office records and filled to the brim with excitement and some damn great action, The Berlin File is one of the best action films this year period.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: The Bourne Supremacy, Enemy of the State, and JSA
Special Thanks to CJ Entertainment for providing a viewing copy!
Don’t forget, The Berlin File arrives on DVD in North America on December 24, 2013!