Kim Jee-woon is an artist who defies classification. Every film in his expansive profile uniquely approaches a different genre and the end result is almost always something special. His latest offering, The Age of Shadows is a hybrid action thriller spy epic that focuses on the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation during the '1920s. Using a labyrinthine structure, Jee-woon weaves a blood soaked ballad of heroism and intrigue highlighted by exquisite visuals and unbelievable tension to deliver one of the best films of 2017 thus far.
Lee Jeong-chool is a Korean police officer for the Japanese who have tasked him with hunting down members of the resistance. Lee, a former rebel, begins to question the honor of his mission when he crosses paths with Kim Woo-jin, a resistance fighter who appeals to Lee's patriotism and former allegiances. Jee-woon approaches the material with an uncanny level or presentation and respect. The action begins with an operatic display of violence in which soldiers pursue a spy across rooftops while blood stains the dust swept streets of a small village, immediately setting the tone for what is a remarkable experience. Jee-woon's intimate script approaches the dramatic subject matter with his expected level of artistic deference, but what makes The Age of Shadows unique is in how the action is seamlessly blended into the historical epic foundation. The safe approach would have been to present the story as a drama about honor and patriotic loyalty; however Jee-woon deftly weaves these themes into a daring tapestry of awe inspiring brutality and a carefully constructed aesthetic.
Ji-yong Kim’s potent cinematography frames 1920's Korea with wicked angles that enhance the action which are then subdued by wide shots of elegant parties and government institutions. The resilient patience and complete control of the visual field is then transmuted into a frenetic tableau during the film's major set piece, a desperate battle aboard a train that is the definition of white knuckle entertainment. What begins as an homage to Kurosawa's High and Low quickly derails into new territory where Jee-woon is an elegant puppeteer, spinning his central players into a dark prison of lies and betrayal. The set design is flawless, recreating a past world that is instantly recognizable and alive, featuring authentic costumes and a haunting score by acclaimed composer Mowg.
Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) stars as Kim Woo-jin, the dangerous, but impassioned resistance fighter who sets his sights on Song Kang-ho's (Memories of Murder) Lee. The chemistry between these two titans is palpable from their first interaction. Both men are living shadows, haunted by the decisions of their past yet unable to move beyond them until their country is free. It is this devotion to an ideal that binds them together against the darkness of oppression. Yoo's raw emotional turn is tremendous and he shines throughout all of his pivotal scenes, however, Kang-ho's devastating performance is pure brilliance. Running at almost two hours and 30 minutes, this is a slow burn approach to a dynamic genre that would have irredeemably failed without Kang-ho’s subtle mastery of inner turmoil and unmerciful vendetta. The action sprinkled throughout is a vehicle to move the his Lee through a cycle of redemption, culminating an one of the best finale's of the 21st century, a series of events whose emotional resonance would not matter had Kang-ho's perfect embodiment of character not been a part of this film.
Available now for digital rental, The Age of Shadows is essential viewing for fans of Asian cinema and for any film lover who is looking for something new. Blending hardcore action sequences with poetic historical drama, this is not to be missed. Featuring an unforgettable central performance, hauntingly rich compositions, and an intrigue packed script, there is something for anyone who enjoys falling in love with movies.
Share this review.