Cold War Kids: Seung-wan’s Latest a Sprawlingly Plotted Encounter with Communism
For his first non-Korean set film, top notch action director Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest film, The Berlin File, still distinctly reflects his trademark style while reflecting a unique international focus of modern political intrigue. Once the protégé of Park Chan-wook in the 90s, Seung-wan has gone on to foster a successful reputation as one of the most notable new directors from South Korea, already having established his trademark as a master visualist, especially when it comes to some impressively staged action sequences. After the success of his 2010 film, The Unjust, which was one of the biggest moneymakers in South Korea that year, his latest shows an impressive shift in scope. However, like his last title, Seung-wan’s narrative also suffers from an overly intricate plot which sometimes hinders the otherwise kinetically paced narrative.
In a Berlin hotel, an illegal arms deal goes horribly awry when North Korean ghost agent, Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo), shows up but is forced to flee the scene. The deal is being observed by a South Korean intelligence operative, Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu), who is now in pursuit of Jong-seong. Simultaneously, a barbarous North Korean agent, Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum) decides to investigate the true loyalties of their operative Jong-seong, and thus concocts a plan to implicate Jong-seong’s wife, Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), as a traitor to the party, an easy target since she works as a translator at the North Korean embassy. Jong-seong is now caught between believing his wife’s innocence or listening to his party’s accusations and demand to turn her over within 48 hours. At the same time, Jin-soo must investigate the failed weapons sale and what exactly North Korea had to do with the deal, as well as why Israel’s Mossad spy agency and the Russians may have been involved.
After a routine introduction of the large number of necessary powers involved in this overly complicated arms plot, we learn that the film, more or less, really has to do with one party’s wish to take over control of the North Korean Berlin office at the German embassy. The tightly wound coil of cacophonous strands springs into paroxysms of nearly constant action sequences after a twenty minute set-up, revolving consistently between all the major players. While this sails us quickly through the two hour running time, less clearly defined subplots barrel forward onerously, whether or not frenetically defined intentions are made clear to us or not. A majority of the sequences not involving the three main narrative thrusts, including Jong-seong and wife, Jin-soon, and the despicable Myung-soon, only result in seeming merely extraneous.
Seung-wan utilizes some of South Korea’s top acting talents, once again casting his frequent collaborator and brother Ryoo Seung-bum, who often depends on bitchy, over-the-top behavioral tics for comic relief (much as he was wont to do in The Unjust, as well). Many should recognize Ha Jung-woo from fare like Kim Ki-duk’s Time (2006) or a pair of Na Hong-jin titles, The Chaser (2008), and The Yellow Sea (2010). He’s granted an underwhelming role here, but all of the performers take a back seat to the excitingly framed action sequences, such as a large scale building shoot out featuring a cascade of broken glass as characters fall through floors amidst a glorious ballet of bullets.
Utilizing split screens for more expertly choreographed roof chase scenes, not to mention some choice aerial shots of fast paced car chases in the streets of Berlin, Seung-wan’s The Berlin File is evidence of a visual master working with a budget that allows him some breathing room for some choice sequences. As one character tellingly exchanges information with another via a John Le Carre novel in a laundromat, a cheeky reference to be sure, one could only hope that eventually Seung-wan could match the narrative skills of a Le Carre with his exciting visuals.