Any news of Ryoo Seung-wan making a new movie is usually greeted by equal doses of excitement and anticipation from fans of Korean cinema, myself included. Once clumsily labeled as the Tarantino of Korea, outside of both directors love of paying homage to cinema of the past, there is little else to warrant comparing their work. After being influenced by the New Hollywood wave of the 1970s in his last movie ‘The Unjust / 부당거래’, for ‘The Berlin File’ Seung-wan said he wanted to make a spy action movie in the style of ‘The Bourne Identity’.
The production attracted an impressive cast, with the four starring roles going to Ha Jung-woo (‘Nameless Gangster / 범죄와의 전쟁 : 나쁜놈들 전성시대’, 'Project 577 / 577 프로젝트'), Han Seok-kyu (‘Paparoti / 파파로티’, ‘Eye for an Eye / 눈에는 눈 이에는 이’), Jeon Ji-hyun ('The Thieves / 도둑들', ‘My Sassy Girl / 엽기적인 그녀’), and Seung-wan’s brother & frequent collaborator Ryoo Seung-beom (‘No Mercy / 용서는 없다’, ‘Crying Fist / 주먹이 운다’). As for the action, another frequent Seung-wan collaborator, and arguably the most respected action director working in Korea today, Jeong Doo-hong (who took on the starring role in Seung-wan’s 2006 feature ‘City of Violence / 짝패’), came on board as the action director.
With all the pieces in place to make a potentially great movie, the production has another unique element to it in that the whole movie plays out in Berlin, where it was shot on location. Jung-woo and Ji-hyun play a North Korean husband and wife stationed in the city in a seemingly loveless marriage, however things are shaken up when an arms deal goes wrong leading to both of them coming under suspicion from Pyongyang that they may be traitors. Soon not only do they have a South Korean agent played by Seok-kyu on their tail, but a highly trained North Korean operative played by Seung-beom is also sent to Berlin to investigate them.
This is the core plot, however it doesn’t actually become clear until around the hour mark of the movie, with the first sixty minutes playing out as an increasingly complex web of espionage and blind sides involving everyone from North and South Korea, the CIA, Israel’s Mossad, international terrorist organizations, and various other groups. If at times you find yourself scratching your head as to what’s going on, it’s entirely forgivable.
Thankfully, once the focus does shift onto the delicate relationship between Jung-woo and Ji-hyun, they become a couple who are easy to root for and they quickly become the heart of the story, as the walls begin to close in on them and they seek to escape any way they can. For those looking for more visceral thrills though, in the capable hands of Doo-hong ‘The Berlin File’ also serves up some exciting action at regular enough intervals that any action fan should leave the movie satisfied. While the gun battles are functional if nothing that hasn’t been seen before, the action really comes into a class of its own during the hand to hand fight and stunt scenes.
Jung-woo gives a convincing performance which more than matches a certain Jason Bourne, with a brutally realistic throw-down against a group of assassins in a cramped apartment, which has anything and everything they can get their hands on being used to try and kill each other. Other scenes have people plummeting from several floors up through glass roofs, foot chases across roof tops, and going at each other using unloaded guns as weapons. Doo-hong delivers a career best in terms of action direction, and ‘The Berlin File’ sets a new standard for gritty action in Korean cinema.
Outside of the action and the central relationship, things do falter a little. Aside from the convoluted plot which can make things a little confusing, and particularly in the second half tends to detract from Jung-woo and Ji-hyun’s plight, there is also the issue that over 40% of the movie is spoken in languages other than Korean, with a lot of it being in English. Seung-wan also wrote the script, and had American screenwriter Ted Geoghegan come in to polish and clean up the English dialogue parts. Seung-beom delivers his English lines with aplomb, embracing the slightly manic and edgy aspects of his character, while Jung-woo also handles his lines well, all be it a little mumbly.
However the scenes involving Seok-kyu exchanging banter with an American CIA agent are a complete car crash, and almost make it seem like he’s playing a completely different character than when he’s speaking in Korean. Burdened with what is admittedly smarmy dialogue to begin with, which seems to require every other word be an expletive, the scenes have a tendency to make your hand involuntarily clench into a fist, and have the worse effect of completely taking you out of the rather gloomy and dark feel of the movie.
However aside from these small gripes, ‘The Berlin File’ delivers on the anticipation that was built-up around it. Like 'The Thieves / 도둑들', it shows Korean cinema once again moving outside of local soil to expand into more international territory, and in this case Seung-wan uses the architecture of Berlin almost as a character in itself, as the Cold War style buildings capture the sense of cloak and dagger all of the characters are involved in. Well worth a watch.