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The Age of Shadows (Blu-ray) (Full Slip Steelbook Limited Edition B) (Korea Version)
Shin Sung Rok (Actor) | Han Ji Min (Actor) | Heo Sung Tae (Actor) | Um Tae Goo (Actor)
The Age of Shadows (Blu-ray) (Full Slip Steelbook Limited Edition B) (Korea Version)
Are there any directors more versatile than Kim Jee-woon? Looking at his CV, it would appear that there certainly can't be many, the Korean helmer having switched between action, comedy, horror, science fiction and quiet drama with assurance and ease, earning himself a slew of awards and a reputation as one of the country's most talented filmmakers in the process. Kim follows up his 2013 Hollywood outing The Last Stand with The Age of Shadows, which surely ranks as one of the biggest Korean films of recent years even if only due to the sheer amount of star power in front of the camera, including Song Kang-ho (The Throne), Gong Yoo (Train to Busan), Han Ji-min (The Fatal Encounter) and others, with Lee Byung-hun and Park Hee-soon showing up for cameo appearances. The film was another international success for Kim, premiering at the Venice Film Festival before going on to tour the world, as well as winning him a long list of awards and nominations, including Best Film at the Korean Association of Film Critics' Awards.

The film takes place in the 1920s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, with Song Kang-ho as Lee Jung-chool, a police officer working for the Japanese who has been tasked with hunting down and infiltrating the Korean resistance, which he was formerly a member of. His plan to do this involves befriending Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), who works as a shady art and antique dealer as a front for his resistance activities, and who he hopes will let slip their schemes. Despite the fact that the two men are fully aware of each other's real identity, they form a partnership of sorts, trying to turn the situation to their own advantage. With the vicious Japanese officer Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) smelling a rat, things start to become more dangerous after it becomes clear that Kim's smuggling route is being prepped to transport explosives from Shanghai to Seoul as part of an attack on the Japanese, pushing Lee to decide where his loyalties lie.

The Age of Shadows is nothing if not complex, being a cat and mouse thriller where the cat and the mouse roles are interchangeable and shift frequently, ambiguous identities and character motivations abounding throughout. Kim Jee-woon, who also scripted along with Lee Ji-min and Park Jong-dae, certainly tries to pack in a great deal of drama and suspense, and the film is relentless in its twists and turns, attempting to keep the viewer guessing as to who will end up on top, or at least alive. This works well enough, to an extent, and the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere of danger and deception, with treachery never far away, and Kim does a decent job of playing on both the moralities and psychologies of his protagonists in a vaguely Hitchcockian fashion. Unfortunately, at the same time he also overplays his hand, and the film gets needlessly caught up in its own chicanery, throwing in far too many characters and subplots to keep things focused. Clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, the film is too long to maintain its momentum and tension, partly due to a middle section which for all its cleverness is essentially filler, never really adding much to the bigger picture. Kim's earlier films, though eccentric in places, were arguably tighter and more focused, and while The Age of Shadows does eventually build to a rewarding conclusion, it's hard not to feel that the film is bloated and takes too long in getting there.

Thankfully, the stellar cast all turn in great performances, and help lift the film during some of its more ponderous stretches. Song Kang-ho is fantastic in what amounts to the lead role, reigning in his over the top persona in favour of something more nuanced, and the film’s most satisfying aspect is arguably his multi-layered portrayal of a man confused by conflicting loyalties and driven to make a series of difficult and dangerous choices. Gong Yoo is also on great form, showing his usual likeability, though with a touch of ruthlessness, and while Han Ji-min doesn’t have much to do, the script at least spares her the indignity of being an eye-candy love interest. Special mention should go to Um Tae-goo, who's a great deal of fun to watch and who seems to have a fine old time chewing the scenery as the villainous Hashimoto, keeping his turn just the right side of pantomime hysteria.

The film also benefits from some impeccable visuals, clearly having enjoyed a sizable budget, no doubt partly as a result of having been produced by Warner Bros. The sets and costumes all look incredible, and the film is both stylised and convincing in its period detail, and cinematographers Kim Ji-yong and Kim Jae-hong give the production a suitably shady and moody look and feel. Kim has proved himself many times a director comfortable with large scale set pieces, and the film has its share of spectacular moments, most notably a virtuoso sequence on a train, and these do help to inject a very welcome shot of pace now and again. Things do get bloody and violent in places, and though there's nothing here to challenge Kim's brutal I Saw the Devil, the film is definitely all the better for having a hard edge.

There's certainly a lot to like about The Age of Shadows, and it's a shame that the film is let down by its overlong running time and overcooked plotting. It's more of a step sideways than backwards for Kim Jee-woon, and doesn't do his standing as one of the best film directors working in Korea today any harm, and as a big budget, all-star blockbuster it does entertain, if not quite enthral.

by James Mudge -

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