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)

Moebius (뫼비우스, Kim Ki-duk, 2013)

pXQzqHE - ImgurKim Ki-duk’s latest reviewed at uk-anime.net.


A Moebius strip is a twisted loop with no beginning and no end. No matter where you start your journey, you could pass the same point many times without ever crossing a boundary. It this inexorable and infinite cycle to which Korean auteur and professional cage rattler Kim Ki-duk now turns his unfaltering gaze as the ancient wheel of sex, death and violence trundles on untroubled by our modern day pretences of a more enlightened society. Completely dialogue free, Kim presents a contemporary greek tragedy framed as the blackest kind of satire.

Things are not going well in this quietly suburban, middle class household. It’s not even breakfast time but the father has retreated to his study because the mother is already perched on the stairs, a large refilled glass of red wine in hand and all while the bemused teenage son looks on disinterestedly. This is a normal morning, nothing has changed very recently. Things are about to change though – quite drastically. Finally at the end of her tether and filled with a Medea-like fury the mother decides to put an end to her husband’s philandering days by means of a kitchen knife. She is extremely drunk and half crazed so her husband easily disarms her at which point she comes up with another idea – if she can’t hurt her husband himself, she can cause him pain by proxy and takes her knife to her unsuspecting son’s room. Literally emasculated by his mother, the young son must then face difficult questions regarding the nature of his masculinity, particularly as it appears to others. His father in turn must cope both with the guilt of his own sins being visited on his son as well as that of his own behaviour as a father, husband and finally a man. Never one for easy answers, Kim Ki-duk’s examination of modern day Korean society continues apace but its implications are far more wide reaching.

Though Kim is firmly focussed on his native Korea, the questions he presents are as old as the hills and common to almost every culture (at least to those that also male dominated). It’s not the first Korean film where the successful father is having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter, or the first where the wife’s humiliation spills over into violence but the nature of her revenge is so specific, and perhaps bizarre, that it brings its own particular line of discourse. The first question is one of traditional masculinity and how that is defined between men. The son seems to feel emasculated and looks for different ways to explore his manhood but is at pains that no one should discover the nature of his injury. Though he approaches the woman who had been his father’s mistress (played by the same actress who plays the mother), he backs off when she reaches for his genitals. Later, he makes an attempt to step in when she’s being hassled by a gang of dangerous looking youths but quickly subjugates himself to them and, when they do actually gang rape her, pretends to join in rather than stand up to them or have them think he is less than a man.

The fact the object of his adolescent lust is both his father’s mistress and looks eerily like a younger version of his mother is another ancient problem where, as they say, everyman kills his father and beds his mother. The father’s first reaction to his son’s predicament is to look for ways someone without a penis might experience orgasm – the answer he comes up with also speaks volumes and points to another of Kim’s ideas of circularity, that pain and pleasure aren’t so much linear poles but a circular continuum where both can exist equally at the same time as a sort of self feeding vortex. The second idea he has is a penis transplant, and as the boy’s is no longer available he makes the ultimate decision to sacrifice his own source of pleasure in favour of his son’s. Unfortunately, it comes with some sort of homing device which means it only works with the mother (perhaps her ultimate revenge). The relationship between father and son changes again as they become rivals in an incestuous love triangle only now it is the father who has become impotent and the son, literally, the man of the house.

If you think this all sounds a bit ridiculous (is a penis transplant even possible?) you aren’t wrong, and Kim Ki-duk knows too. Odd as it might sound, Moebius is a comedy, even if a macabre one. Sexual violence, incest, penis theft – not traditional comedic ingredients it has to be said but Kim Ki-duk’s very definitely of the it’s better to laugh than cry school of thought and the sheer scale of Kim’s vision gives the entire project the sort of absurd grandiosity that makes it very difficult not to find humour even the bleakest of situations. Kim isn’t proposing any answers here so much as offering a series of (critical) observations of human nature. The world isn’t going to change just as it hasn’t changed since Euripides first started telling stories of people driven to the edge of madness. We’re all walking on a Moebius strip, repeating the cycle endlessly completely unaware that, at some point, we began walking on the other side. Like the best Greek tragedies, Moebius is has a feeling of inevitability driven by the most primal of emotions. Once again Kim proves he’s not afraid to look deep into the dark heart of human nature and, though not for the faint hearted, Moebius is one of his most accomplished films to date.