TIFF Review: The Age of Shadows (밀정)

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

There are always a few films every year that as soon as you hear who’s staring in the film, you just know it’s going to be good. Of course, it helps when it’s a beautifully shot film with a great director behind the helm. But pretty much anytime you put two great actors together, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to want to see the film. The only question is how good will it be?

The Age of Shadows (밀정) with Gong Yu (공유) & Song Kang-Ho (송강호), which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September before opening in theatres here in Toronto and across North America, was one such film.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF


A cloak and dagger film set in the 1920’s during the Japanese occupation of South Korea, The Age of Shadows tells the story of a Korean independence group’s struggle to attack the Japanese government in Korea and the attempt to stop them by the Japanese police. Things are complicated by the fact that one of the police officers, Lee Jung-Chool, played by Song Kang-Ho, used to be a member of the resistance while in Shanghai until he decided to switch sides for money and stability. During the investigation, he meets the regional leader of the resistance, Kim Woo-Jin, played by Gong Yu, and the two feel each other out. Spies, double crosses and uncertain intentions keep the viewer wondering what will happen next.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

My Thoughts

I loved the epicness of the opening scene. It set the tone of the film and the expectations of the audience. However, with all the action of the Japanese police chasing the resistance fighters across roofs and around buildings, I was left with one question – in fact it was the only scene in the entire film that didn’t make sense to me. What was up with the resistance member cutting off his own big toe after he was shot and he knew it was hopeless? It bugged me – beyond the obvious gross factor – because I kept thinking I was missing something significant. But even not understanding, it doesn’t diminish from the film so back to the review.

During the opening scene we’re introduced to Jung-Chool, as he’s one of the police officers in it, and shortly afterwards, we meet Woo-Jin, and the two start their cat and mouse dance. One of the things I liked about the film was you weren’t always sure who was leading the dance. Sure, it starts off with Jung-Chool pursuing Woo-Jin but that’s not how it stays.

Another thing I enjoyed was the foreshadowing in this film, which was often done so subtly that you may not catch it all (I missed some) unless you see it twice. Actually, it’s better the second time as you catch more, you’ll see things you missed the first time. Like a simple line of dialogue, “How do I know one of you isn’t the spy?” And yes, I saw it twice.

Of course, it’s not all subtle. One of the more obvious elements of foreshadowing was when Woo-Jin takes a photo of Yun Gye-Soon, played by Han Ji-Min (한지민) but it also leads to such a heartbreaking scene later in the film so the obviousness can be forgiven. But I found it interesting how such simple scenes or lines could lead into so much more. There’s a lot going on in the film, beyond the action, although there is plenty of that.

The story, while simple at face value – the resistance wants to blow up/stop the occupying government, the occupying government’s police force wants to stop them – has subplots, twists and uncertainties that make it complex, compelling and at time, extremely heart wrenching. It’s extremely character-driven and the two leads – Gong Yu & Song Kang-Ho have such great chemistry together that they elevate the film on their fabulous performances. There were many scenes that showcased their talent but two stood out for me, the courtroom scene and the first time they met.

Speaking of performances, the slapping scene by the Japanese police officer Hashimoto, played by Um Tae-Goo (엄태구)… wow, just wow. The ridiculousness of his temper tantrum, coupled with how many times he slaps his subordinate… it’s one of those scenes that sticks with you, and makes you want to smack Hashimoto back. But the violence isn’t all ridiculous, there are some torture scenes that are pretty hard to watch – not that any torture scene is easy to watch but there’s something inherently worse watching a woman being tortured. And it seems that seeing one of the “good” guys doing part of it adds another level of flinching horror.

Luckily, the film isn’t all dark betrayal and torture. There is plenty of buildup, suspense and plain old action too. Plus the breakfast when Jung-Chool is introduced to Jung Chae-San, the resistance leader played by Lee Byun Hun (이병헌) is so funny. When the barrel of soju – and yes, barrel is the correct word – is brought out and then the massive rounds of drinking ensue, I was giggling so much I almost cried. But it was also nice to cut the seriousness of the film for a bit.

My only criticism is that for a film that’s driven as much by the characters as it is by the story, I would have liked it if some of the characters were fleshed out a little more. But that’s a frequent complaint in action films. I did find Jung-Chool’s character the most interesting, with his struggle between what might be best/easiest for him and what could help his country.

And for all the drama, it truly is an action film. The scene on the train was a masterpiece of both drama and action. Tensions build and build, finally culminating in a final clash worthy of high noon in a Western. And so superbly shot – the details in the train, everything, just added to the scene.

Speaking of the technical aspects of the film, I love the way it was shot, the almost sepia tone to it, which helped get the audience into the time period of the film. There was also good use of sound, or in some cases, lack of sound, to set the tone or mood of a scene. The soundtrack also worked well.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Final Thoughts

It’s an impressive film that manages to be both simple and complex, all the while telling an interesting period action/spy film. Director Kim Jee-Woon (김지운) delivered a beautifully shot film with solid performances by both leads that will keep you entertained until the end. And yes, it’s even better if you see it twice.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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