The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Secret Cinema, 23rd April 2011 (matinee)

For the longest time I’ve been reading about and following secret cinema, but due to a slight problem with cowardice, coupled with the logistical one of not knowing where one will be expected to go I hadn’t yet been able to attend one of their performances. I think I first became really aware of them when they did Wings of Desire, which is one of my favourite films, and then later there was a news segment on their screening of Blade Runner (another of my favourites) two events I’d really have loved to attend! The conceit behind Secret Cinema is that generally speaking, you won’t know the name of the film, or even it’s location when you book the tickets. The location will be transmitted to you at a suitable time before your visit, and the identity of the film when the projection starts. However, there are of course various hints given out by the organisers, including a suggested (but optional) dress code which assist in trying to work out what sort of film is likely to be shown. Unusually on this occasion, the location was known ahead of time which is most useful for people of a nervous disposition, such as myself, who like to know what sort of dodgy alleyway they’ll be hanging around trying to find the way in/out whilst dressed, ahem, questionably. So luckily for me, I received an email from the Old Vic telling me that Secret Cinema would be co-opting their tunnels for three weeks.

Excitedly, but with more than a little trepidation, I booked my tickets for a Saturday matinee. I dutifully filled in the identity forms, as outlined in my ticket briefing, and discovered myself to be a ‘Group C’ (answers cbbcccc, if anyone’s interested) and checked the corresponding dress code. Luckily I could choose either of the first two and opted for the second, which I had more of a chance approximating at short notice from things in my wardrobe. Though I did have buy a white scarf, which luckily wasn’t too hard to find. Still, I think I ended up looking more like the female friend in 8 1/2 in aviator mode more than anything else, oh well at least I tried!

Knowing pretty much where I was going, but still paranoid about exactly how to get there, I set off with a little bit of time over for potentially getting lost. No fear, it was where I expected, pretty much opposite the London Eye, straight down the end of a *fairly* dodgy alleyway which looked more like something out of ’80s Berlin than the Algeria of the 1960s, but anyway I’m getting ahead of myself. I passed another couple of questionably dressed girls, and surmised I must be heading in the right direction. Being a little early they hadn’t quite set up so I hung around a bit watching some other early birds take photos, and the ’embassy staff’ set up the check point. Soon enough a couple of tables appeared in front of a doorway surrounded by barbed wires and barricades. A loud speaker could be heard reminding us to be vigilant, have our papers ready and that the army was there for our safety (this was in English by the way). While I was queuing to go in an actress pretending to be a child asked me if I wanted to play with her ball/cup thing (what are those called?) at least I think she did, she asked in French so I didn’t really understand, but adults dressed as children freak me out a bit so I think I just shook my head and hoped she’d go away. Which she did. Anyway I presented my completed census form to the lady at the table who checked me off the list and told me to go ahead. I also noticed that some people had really gone to town with their forms, sepia toning their photos and filling them in more officially and I really wished I’d done the same instead of filling it in in biro and attaching an old driving license photo. I proceeded and handed my ‘papers’ to the army officers at the barricades, who took ages reading it and looking over the top giving me filthy looks, eventually they had a quick look in my bag and let me though.

The walk along the path blocked off by barricades and barbed wire was quite short, but we were stopped at the next door for a couple of minutes until the soldier opened it and let us into the main area, that is ‘the casbah’. As we walked in we entered another passage way, dimly lit with white washing hanging about halfway down and a very impressive lighting design. At the end of this passageway was a central square which led off in several different directions. One end contained some food stands which weren’t operational and led through to a cushioned bar area, and at the opposite end a colonnade containing some stairs and an Air France travel booth, at which one could book flights! Leading off left and right were traditional North African style buildings with various peoples occupying them, there was the Milk Bar/disco, a room for chess playing, a little hut which seemed to contain the HQ of some kind of movement (the liberation movement as I would later find out), I saw several people talk to the man here and present their papers, they were either asked to leave, rudely, given a mission/message or nothing really at all. Another entrance off the central square led into the main bar area where food/drink was available, and next to this a screening room showing documentaries. A passage off here led into the prison where a suspect was being detained and ‘questioned’, rather vigorously. I also saw several people fall foul of the guards and get marched into this area, I’m not really sure what happened to them then but I’m sure it all worked out for them in the end. The prison area also lead out into the police station, complete with briefing room and period telephone.

We were free to roam around the area for about ninety minutes or so, interacting with the various actors inhabiting the ‘set’. I’m quite a shy person and didn’t volunteer myself all that much but was approached by a few of the actors and asked questions/yelled at in French, I think I though one of them was asking me the time, but even that much school girl French had deserted me, so I just held up my arm (with a watch obviously). I hope they were asking the time, or I’ll feel even more stupid! Various things occurred, a band turned up for a bit in the square, people were taken in and out of prison etc. Then at one point everyone started shouting ‘Vite! Vite!’ which I DID get the gist of and we all ended up in a courtyard area next to the little hut with the alleged HQ, where a square of white material had been lowered. One of the military drummers from the band was beating out a super fast rhythm and three women were taking off their white muslim clothes and changing into stylish 1960s Parisian fashion, complete with stockings and make up. When they’d nearly finished this the men came out of the hut with suitcases, into which they put the women’s normal clothes and out of which they took something that resembled bombs, each of the women put one of these into the stylish handbag. The men said something to the women in arabic, then they quickly left the area. To my surprise, and mild horror, one of the women grabbed me and wouldn’t let go! she removed the white scarf from around my neck and led me through the central square, past the checkpoint in the middle being careful not to alert the soldiers and into the cafe area. We stood next to the popcorn stand for a bit, in quite  suspicious manner, then she very unsubtly threw the stylish bag behind the popcorn stand and led me off again into the cushioned area at the back, where she got me to help her take off her necklace (which was a bit weird, didn’t really get that bit). Then the man with her told me to go back to the central square and join the crowd there.

A little while later a military parade started, there was the band playing, some ceremonial maneuvers, everyone sang La Marseillaise, then there was a speech in French I think in praise of the army and their defense of the people but I’m not sure and then…..there was a massive BANG as all these ‘bombs’ dropped by the women (as I would later find out in the film at the Cafe, Air France, and the Milk Bar) went off and everything went pitch black. Some lights appeared from somewhere and everyone was running, some ‘vite! vite’ing again and seeing as I was at the back of the crowd I was urged to run back the way I’d come, towards the courtyard again but up some stairs that led to an open air corridor above it. I was directed towards I presume a friendly house, through to a bedroom, over the bed, out the window! onto some more stairs down where upon I found myself in a screening room!

Being one of the first in I bagged myself an aisle seat, but then inevitably a giant bagged the one in front and had a left leaning bias, which kept blocking my view but it was mostly OK. Sadly I’d wound up in the screening room with hard wooden chairs, which wasn’t the most comfortable thing and I wished I brought something to sit on but you can’t have everything. We waited for the room to fill up, and I guess for them to bring in overflow people from the other rooms, then the chief man from the HQ gave a speech (in Arabic) which no one understood and the film finally started.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the film was Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo (1966) about the liberation movement in Algeria from French Colonial rule in the late 1950s and ’60s. The action spans the movement from 1954 through to 1957, detailing the rise of the revolutionary cells in the casbah, the increasing acts of violence on both sides, the eventual ‘victory’ of the French forces eliminating the ‘terrorist’ element in Algiers but then eventually losing Algeria to public revolutionary fervour a few years later. We see policemen murdered, bombs placed in public places (as reconstructed in the pre show), but also public check points, the native North Africans repeatedly harassed and poorly treated, beaten, spat at, despised. Suspected activists taken and routinely tortured to reveal information on terrorist cells. Although Pontecorvo largely manages to avoid obvious bias, and condemns both sides equally it does seem to me that what results is an anticolonial film, which isn’t say that it approves terrorism or armed struggle anymore than institutionalised abuse and torture, but it does sympathise with a people’s desire to be free. There were quite a few walkouts during the screening, I can understand why this film wasn’t to everyone’s taste though I’m very glad I saw it as it’s not something I’d probably seek out on my own, and I can understand why some people felt it to tip over the line from topical to poor taste given the current events in North Africa and the Levant. However, I’m very glad Secret Cinema choose to present a film like this, at this time, and I certainly hope they continue to do more in this vein in the future. I highly recommend this film to anyone who’s interested in political cinema or French involvement in North Africa.

When the film eventually finished we left the screening room down a path strewn with nutshells, past a spectacularly lit praying muslim, whilst a powerful sounding Arabic song played in the background. We then turned and followed the way out past more white clad muslim’s some with their arms outstretched, some in prayer and the atmosphere was one of absolute peace. The overall effect was really quite stunning, the convergence of the atmosphere, the lighting and the music was really incredibly moving. On exiting the doorway we were then given a newspaper with further information about the film, the background and secret cinema itself. I really found this a wonderful and immersive experience and I’ve every intention of visiting their next presentation, whatever and wherever that may be!