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The Age of Shadows - Movie Poster
Original Title:

South Korea 2016

Thriller, Action, Drama

Kim Jee-woon

Song Kang-ho
Gong Yoo
Eom Tae-goo
Han Ji-min
Tsurumi Shingo
Sin Seong-rok
Heo Sung-tae
Lee Seol-goo
Lee Byung-hun
Park Hee-soon

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The Age of Shadows

The Age of Shadows - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-ho) works as a police captain in Japanese-occupied Korea. He is tasked to find the leaders of the Korean resistance. He has already lost a good friend who worked for the opposite side, but he nonetheless continues obeying the commands of his superior Higashi (Tsurumi Shingo), who assigns Hashimoto (Eom Tae-goo) to give him a helping hand. However, Jeong-chool's new partner seems to be eager claiming the reward for taking down the resistance for his own or he might be spying on Jeong-cheol. Meanwhile, the police captain believes to have found Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), an important member of the resistance. The two cotton up to each other and Woo-jin asks the police captain for a favor. He wants a few goods to be brought to Shanghai, which is quite a hassle with all the police controls. In fact, these goods are actually bombs which the resistance soon wants to use against the occupying power. Jeong-chool agrees, but he now isn't sure anymore, whether he really wants to help the resistance or win the members' trust in order to get to their leader as initially planned...

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Review: For all those who prefer a short summary, "The Age of Shadows" is actually one of Kim Jee-won's more inferior movies. And despite that this espionage-thriller is without a doubt a well-achieved movie. Director Kim works on such a high level with a fine eye for details and sets as well as a good sense for getting the best out of his lead actors that we actually don't expect any misstep from him anymore. His newest flick struggles with a very ambitious running time of 140 minutes, though. After an impressive introduction, in which we don't see wuxia fighters, but Japanese soldiers jump from rooftop to rooftop while the director does a fantastic tracking shot across the big set, the movie sadly loses its momentum and you have to prepare for a very lengthy introduction. It takes a while until Kim Jee-won finds his rhythm again.

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However, it needs to be noted that "The Age of Shadows" is no action film. That's a shame since the few action sequences shown are in parts captured terrificly. Instead, suspense stands more in the director's focus. With Song Kang-ho ("The Throne") there has also been enrolled an actor whose acting chops are beyond any doubt and who perfectly portrays the inner struggle of a man who actually may be for Korea's independence but isn't willing to risk life and limb for it. The thriller's big appeal is that there are spies and double agents to be found at every corner and Lee Jeong-cheol stands somewhere in the middle, between two enemy sides without really wanting to tie himself to one or the other, or he choses one of the two sides temporarely.

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This can't go well in the long run, of course, and this leads to some extremely thrilling scenes. The movie's clear highlight, not only in respect to the action, but also in terms of suspense, is the scene on the train. We already know that director Kim knows how to handle wonderful train scenes, see "The Good, the Bad, the Weird", but this is also where his love for details becomes apparent: wonderfully decorated sets and fantastic picture composition. Still, this is also where you get the proof that Kim works best with exactly scenes like these. The long introduction stands in contrast to those scenes on the train particularly strong and so you have to ask yourself why the movie hasn't been trimmed down a bit here. Moreover, you can criticize that the movie continues after this actual finale on the train for another 50 minutes. The real showdown comes across as rather anticlimactic.

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The long running time is used to create complex entanglements which create the groundwork for spies and betrayal. That's fine, especially since the script approaches the matter in a quite intelligent manner. But you still should be allowed to ask why the time hasn't been used for shedding some more light on the characters. While Song Kang-ho is able to create some very intense and fantastically played scenes, Gong Yoo ("Train to Busan") can show only surprisingly little of himself. He may be portraying the actual hero of the story, but he still remains flat. The same can be said about the supporting cast, whereas this is especially bad concerning the love interest of the freedom fighter, played by Han Ji-min ("Plan Man"). A torture scene doesn't manage to emotionally involve because we don't have any attachment to her.

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"The Age of Shadows" is more violent and bloody than you maybe would assume. What's unfortunate is that the Japanese are all depicted as villains here. A little bit more differentiation would have been great, particularly since the villains almost get caricatural traits in respect to their focusedness on smashing the resistance. But the story is quite captivating indeed, especially because of the constant play with the identities of the spies. Still, the truely thrilling scenes show that you occasionally, particularly at the beginning, fall into a deep hole, which wouldn't have been necessary. You may be able to see Kim Jee-won's ambitiousness and the movie in fact turns out to be slightly better than "The Assassins", but despite a big budget the director can't show the kind of brilliancy which normally distinguishes him from others. His handwriting can clearly be made out, though, and that's enough to deliver a recommendable movie here.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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