Reviews - The Age of Shadows
The Age of Shadows
Reviewed By John Porter
Kim Jan-Ok is a leading resistance fighter, and was once a friend of Lee Jung-Chool, now a Japanese sympathiser and the current police chief. The movie opens on the pursuit of Jan-Ok, who eventually chooses to shoot himself instead of handing over secrets of the independence struggle to his old friend. From here the narrative opens out slowly, introducing characters in small flourishes, bringing not only a mystery as they take their places on the chessboard, but also considerable exoticism as the set design surrounds them with a lusciously romanticised view of the early 20th century Far East. Joining Lee Jung-Chool in the intrigue are the Japanese head of the consulate, and his serpentine aide Hashimoto, Kim Woo-jin, whose antique shop and photography studio doubles as a resistance focal point, and Yeon Gye-soon, a well dressed lady of the struggle who brings in a Hungarian explosives expert, so setting the stage for a plan to smuggle dynamite from China. Seeing Lee Jung-Chool as a potential help for the rebels' cause as a source of information from the Japanese, Kim Woo-jin attempts to recruit him, asking small acts of loyalty which become ever larger and more dangerous.
'The Age of Shadows' has no designs on making grand statements or wrapping it's protagonists in philosophy, and is all the stronger for it, leaving Jee-woon Kim's style with free-reign over increasingly exciting spy escapades. The streets of the cities are crisscrossed and tiered with staircases giving a nod to Hollywood Noir and expressionism, then lit by red paper lanterns at night. During the initial set piece's cinematography, cameras swooping high and low around duskily lit tiled roofs as Jan-Ok runs from a battalion of Lee Jung-Chool's soldiers, the director's adored spaghetti westerns show their influence in the swift zooms and jarring pans (his previous movie 'The Good, the Bad, and the Weird' from 2008 being a virtual love letter to these 1960s Euro-action films).
These techniques never overpower the movie however, the twists and turns of the plot keeping the atmosphere of intrigue high and pushing forward the narrative into ever spiraling deceptions. Given time to sink in, the movie feels like an authentic and finely crafted genre film which never sells itself out to spectacle or disbelief.
As Jung-Chool becomes embroiled deeper into the world of the resistance, which figures know what, and how this can be used against the opposition become ever more integral pieces of the puzzle, reaching a climax with a wonderfully paced sequence on a cross-border train travelling from Shanghai to Seoul. Cat becomes mouse, and as loyalties shift and bullets fly, the movie rises to an exciting and surprising climax. Describing 'The Age of Shadows' as an action picture is short-changing it; Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Jee-woon Kim's influences shine through and simultaneously manage to celebrate cinema's past and create a contemporary Korean gem of adventure and espionage.
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