Story: Yu (Han Suk-kyu) and his partner Lee (Song Kang-ho) are special agents, who are after North Korean
female spy Hee. Hee assassinates important men of South Korean industry in order to weaken
the political power of the country, but the two investigators lose track of the spy over and over again.
Eventually, the North Korean army dispatches a secret special unit and sends them to South Korea to steal a new higly experimental liquid bomb with the name CTX. Since this liquid has neither a color, nor any smell, it is easily smuggled into any public building. The target of the north-Korean special unit, lead by Park (Choi Min-sik), is a football stadion, in which the teams of North- and South Korea are to held a friendly soccer match. But for what reason does the special unit want to interfere with the peace process that is finally getting under way? And why are they putting in danger their own president, who will be attending the match as well as the president of South Korea?
At the same time Yu has also some personal problems to take care of, as his girlfriend Lee (Kim Yun-jin), who he soon wants to marry, suddenly relapses and becomes a victim of her former alcoholism. However, the question Yu really has to concentrate on is why the assassin is always one step ahead of them? Yu and his partner Lee start to suspect each other, but they have to hurry to find the leak within their unit, if they want to have a chance to prevent the assault at the stadion.
Review: "Shiri" is a loud, actionloaded and lavishly produced blockbuster that successfully combines elements
of your typical Hollywood flick with the more emotional aspect of Asian movies. Back then, "Shiri" was an incredible
box-office hit, which surpassed any expectations of the producers, contributing significantly to the boom of Korean
cinema and the rising of Korean movie industry. Why is that so? That's actually easily answered. The movie is full
of special effects, that offered unequaled opportunities and were second to none in Korea at that time. Moreover it
delivers nice action and a story revolving around the divided Korea, that is wrapped up in an espionage-exterior, which
just had to appeal to the audience. Despite the nicely introduced love story and lots of shoot-outs, it's more than
anything else the story around the desire for an united Korea, that bestows a certain meaning and depth upon the movie.
Even for newbies, who are not into Asian movies, it's very easy to get access to this film. The characters and their respective roles are soon defined, and the introduction already captures us with its action and surprising brutality. However, it feels somewhat cheap that the director depicts North Koreans as being nothing more than monsters, who slaughter each other during their training, and in the same breath shout something about "reunification". The filmmakers have chosen the easy way and drew a hackneyed, as well as cheap, common concept of the enemy, which is even the more odd, since Park and Hee have some human qualities that shine through later on, which makes us almost understand their motivation - at least partly. Yet, the cruel pictures at the beginning simply keep standing in our way, which is why we can never emotionally relate to the North Korean side. A perspective more unbiased, like in "JSA", really would have been desirable.
Anyway, "Shiri" is oftentimes just simply about the action. The action is brought on screen through several shoot-outs, which are all well executed, but don't stand out with anything memorable, which is also why they become almost tedious after the umpteenth repetition. What's surprising, however, is the level of brutality and blood shown. Cut off heads, head shots and exploding bodies - we get to see all of it, and it's sometimes pretty harsh to look at. Thus, viewers with a weak stomach should watch this movie with care.
Technically, the film is solidly made, providing a good pace without any real setbacks. Concerning its style it reminds us of early Michael Bay Hollywood flicks, when they were still without the overstyled cool look they have today. The well done soundtrack also adds to the thrill factor, and so the film remains enthralling until the very end. Director Kang Je-gyu, who later on should write box-office history in Korea with his "Taegukgi" once again, proves that he really knows his craft.
The movie is carried by Korea's acting elite. Some of them were already well-known back then, but most of them have just become real top stars today. Also thanks to the success of "Shiri", of course. Han Suk-kyu ("Christmas in August", "The Scarlet Letter") plays the leading role quite convincing, yet, as well as his partner Song Kang-ho ("The Host", "JSA"), he is just not challanged by the role - and it shows. The same can't be said about "Lost"-Star Kim Yun-jin ("Ardor", "Diary of June"), however, who manages with ease to depict a complex character in her debut. The only one who can overshadow her performance is Choi Min-sik ("Oldboy", "Failan"), who always succeeds to give his person something hateable, and yet also manages to awaken some kind of understanding in the viewer. Without him North Koreans would have simply looked like cruel, cold-blooded monsters. Well, they still do, but it's not his fault...
It's really interesting that the movie is most convincing, when it slows down a bit. The love story is worked into the movie pretty well, and even though it gets almost no time on screen during the second half, it can serve with some captivating well-executed emotional moments at the end.
In the end, "Shiri" is nothing less than a very entertaining action-espionage thriller, which story doesn't provide any real surprise - unfortunately we can also figure out Hee's true identity way too soon - but it still can come up with some nice ideas. The action is nicely executed and especially for a movie of the year 1999 the director seems to be ahead of his time concerning production value. Sure, there are some aspects that can be criticized, but it doesn't really matter, as the director aims at emotionally involving his audience, and he does so successfully. The ending is well done and shows us that the filmmakers even had a message worked out in the background that they wanted to convey. The wish for reunification and the pain of being seperated is depicted in various ways, for instance it can also be found in the fine love story. For this alone "Shiri" deserves some words of praise.
At the end there is only left to say: A movie that will appeal to action- as well as thriller fans!