Complementing the up-coming Oz-Asia Festival here in Adelaide the following continues the series of reviews of films that are set in Asia. Previously this has included the extraordinary Chinese film Aftershock (2010) was well as interpretations of the ‘East’ through ‘Western’ eyes, exemplified by Bhowani Junction (1956). This review is of a contemporary South Korean film The Age of Shadows (2016), by ‘cult’ director Kim Jee-woon with a screenplay by Lee Ji-min and Park Jong-dae. It features an exceptional cast, led by Song Kang-ho and (swoon) Gong Woo. Some of you may be familiar with Gong Woo, one of South Korea’s most popular and handsome actors, possibly from the internationally successful zombie film Train to Busan (2016). In fact The Age of Shadows is a bot of a ‘swoon-fest’ all over as its ensemble cast are not only terrific actors but incredibly handsome and beautiful. Furthermore, director and producer Kim Jee-woon exemplifies what I like best about a great many contemporary Asian directors and films. There is a kind of maverick audacity at play; respectful of the art and tradition of film-making, and yet re-inventing it in a completely new and refreshing way.
The Age of Shadows is unique amongst many contemporary Asian films in that it is 20th Century historical drama about South Korean resistance fighters at the time of the Japanese occupation during WW2, something relatively unknown in the ‘West’. With a budget of $8.5 million the film was produced by Warner Brothers, their first ever Korean language film.
Whilst generally receiving good reviews, as well as a number of awards, the film did not achieve the same popularity in the ‘West’ that it had in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. Some American critics found it ‘hard to follow’ with some ‘impressive ‘action scenes’, as well as being a ‘polished, often exciting patriotist drama’. but that ‘those looking for a deeper, mightier resonance would be well advised to keep their expectations in check’.
Having watched this film I find the above criticism a little to patronising and condescending. This is a beautifully made film – re-creating the period with terrific art design and costumes, as well as often the highly successful atmospheric use of saturated colour particularly in the early parts of the film. This saturation becomes less and less, matching the harsh reality as the film steadily advances to its tragic and violent outcome, Furthermore, the performances by the acting ensemble are truly excellent. Do you care about the fate and fortunes of these characters? YES! Is it an exciting and fascinating story that is well told? YES! Is it worth watching? ABSOLUTELY!!
I can’t answer for its historical accuracy, nonetheless, I am relatively certain that there were numerous brave South Korean resistance fighters who sacrificed their lives in facing the imperial fascistic and brutal military power of the occupying Japanese forces during WW2. Subsequently, for those of us in the “West” that may be ignorant of such things this film is also enlightening as well as thoroughly entertaining.
It is true, however, that there are some exceptional action scenes; the sequence in the train, for example, is brilliant. It is a violent film, complementing the violence of the time, but it is also poignantly heroic; begging the comparative question of would we today be so brave and self-sacrificing when facing such horrific violence. Furthermore, it is not true that the film is ‘hard to follow’; nor is it unmoving and lacking in depth and complexity. The comeuppance of the ‘informer’ is particularly violent, but one couldn’t help feeling completely deserved. I won’t say who is the ‘informer’, nonetheless, this film has complex layers of loyalty and betrayal, stressing the notion that not everything one sees and hears is true. In a year that is dominated in the ‘West’ by Christopher Nolan’s exceptional film Dunkirk, it is well worth watching The Age of Shadows to experience another story about survival – at an incredible cost.