Kim Jee-woon has established a cult fandom with his surgically precise filmmaking, his canny mixing and matching of genres, his control of mood and tone, and his willingness to push violence as far as anyone currently working in modern film…and then push just a little bit further.
From the giddy sugar rush of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, the haunted and haunting Tale of Two Sisters, and the nihilistic I-can’t-watch-this-but-I-can’t-look-away horror of I Saw the Devil, Jee-woon is seemingly willing to try anything and everything. His first foray into American filmmaking fizzled with the little-seen Arnie vehicle The Last Stand (not up to South Korean snuff but loaded with goodness that should have brought out audiences). Now, Jee-woon returns with the sprawling historical intrigue of The Age of Shadows.
While the film’s density and depth proves intimidating at times, sheer force of craft makes The Age of Shadows one of the most accomplished films of Fantastic Fest, and another triumph for Jee-woon.
Set in a pre-World War 2 era, Age of Shadows sees Korea controlled by Japanese forces. Revolution stirs in alleyways and behind shop windows, a powder keg that multiple elements scheme to touch torch to.
Stuck in the middle of this particular viper’s nest is Lee Jeong-chool (played by South Korea’s ubiquitous leading man, Song Kang-ho, the brilliant chameleon in everything from The Host to Memories of Murder to The Good The Bad The Weird to Snowpiercer to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and on and on), a one-time ally to the rebellion forces now employed as a police captain for the Japanese government. When a major figure in the rebellion is killed in the first of the film’s many mesmerizing shootouts, it sends both factions into frenzy. The revolution redouble their efforts to bring explosive freedom to the land, while the Japanese forces double down on their efforts to control the land.
If there is one core stumbling block to Shadows, it’s that the film is so densely packed with characters and agendas that it becomes difficult to keep your footing, especially since Jee-woon’s pacing never flags. This is a movie that opens mid-military operation and keeps adding and shuffling pieces as it goes. Characters get killed or taken off the board via montage, and it can be an uphill battle to stay abreast of the story, especially with the similarities in characters’ fashions, style, etc.
(I also wonder if Jee-woon is leaning on historical shorthand to a degree that leaves Westerners at a disadvantage. I was talking about this with some pals after the movie, and the stumbling block is akin to making someone from another country sit down with The Patriot or something and expecting them to follow along.)
But I’ll tell you why this mostly still works:
1) Song Kang-ho has been the ace in the hole for South Korean films for over a decade, bringing a humanity to even the most bizarre of films and moments. Kang-ho is possessed of a tremendous human presence, and having him as the center of the film gives you a linchpin even as the plot tangles and untangles.
And 2) Jee-woon is by this point so accomplished a director that he can keep you wrapped around his finger with action and suspense sequences whenever he damn well pleases. His camera moves with assured menace, his edits fold you into a rhythm only to disrupt you, twist you, shake you up, and leave you breathless. Anytime the film seems to be flagging, Jee-woon will deploy a setpiece that leaves you gasping with tension and astonishment.
Best of all is a long chunk of the movie set on a train, with what feels like almost the entire ensemble dancing around each other. People have guns, people have explosives, people have agendas that clash and battle. It’s almost like a sequence of ten different suspense setpieces all competing against one another, collapsing into one another until the figurative (or literal?) explosion that you know is coming. De Palma himself could not have orchestrated such mayhem better in his prime.
When the violence hits, it hits hard, and Jee-woon remains peerless in his ability to make audiences squirm. Nothing in Age of Shadows can compare to the harshest moments in I Saw the Devil (what can?), but this is deadly work our characters engage in, work that necessitates choices and action that leave scars even on those who survive physically whole.
While his films occupy many different genres and span centuries, Jee-woon continually returns to the question of just how much a human person can take. How much trauma, how much pain, how much anguish can a person go through before they become something else entirely? For Lee Jeong-chool, the question is even more difficult, as he is a man who begins the film already unsure of who he is. The intrigue and violence force him to confront the agnostic nature of his own soul and make a choice, for better or worse.
In the hands of Jee-woon, the answer is almost always going to be “worse,” but good god is it always an enthralling ride to get there.