Released in South Korea and America in September 2016, it has been a long 6 months waiting for this intriguing film to be released in the UK. Having made my list for most anticipated films of 2017 and staring Gong Yoo (of Train to Busan fame), my expectations could not have been higher. But has this cat-and-mouse game about Korean resistance fighters been worth the wait?
Set in the Japanese occupied Korea of the 1920s, The Age of Shadows follows police captain Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho) as he performs his duty of rooting out the fellow countrymen that choose not to submit to their occupiers.
However, the death of an old school friend hits him greatly and Lee descends into a psychological tug-of-war as he must decide if he should help the resistance, or do as ordered by his Japanese masters and hunt them down.
Kicking off with a thrilling rooftop chase, the tone is quickly set as we’re introduced to our main character. I hadn’t seen Song Kang-ho since 2000s Joint Security Area, but here he quickly reminded me of what an astounding actor he is.
From the emotional distress of his friend’s death to the heart pounding train sequence, Song effortlessly swings between the tragic and the tension. As a character that is stuck between two societies, Song creates a sympathetic soul out of someone that desperately holds self-preservation above all else.
While his interaction with several characters could be award winning in itself, its when he meets Kim Woon Jin (Gong Yoo), a member of the Korean resistance, that the tension elevates from stressful to utterly nerve-wracking. Both actors are at the top of their game, never letting slip what their true beliefs and goals are until the very end.
But it’s not just the acting as the film is full of intense dramatic moments brought to life by award winning director Kim Jee-woon. He moves his camera with consummate professionalism through visually breathtaking action sequences and finely choreographed chase scenes.
Such strong direction is fortunately accompanied by excellent production designs. With the rain drenched city streets of 1920s Korea exuding a noir sensibility; and the sumptuous costume design lending to the audience’s immersion into the time period, The Age of Shadows manages to be both modern and traditional in its presentation of a thrilling spy narrative.
While the film goes to great pains in showing the complexity of both the lead and the supporting characters; the actual portrayal of the Japanese and the Koreans is rather black and white. There is no question that the Koreans have the moral high ground, but I do wonder if maybe it would have been worth showing a far more complex version of the Japanese. After all, even Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List was shown to possess a minuscule amount of humanity.
You may have seen that this film was submitted to the Academy Awards last year and it was a well deserved choice. Seamlessly blending human drama with the tragedy of war, The Age of Shadows is a beautifully shot film with solid performances that shows the very best and the very worst of the human condition.