Shiri (1999) Movie Review

“Shiri” has the distinction of being my first South Korean movie ever. The movie gained notoriety as the most expensive movie ever made in South Korean history (this was in 1999) and topped the box office of 1999 throughout the year. It’s a good action movie, in the vein of Hollywood fare like “The Rock”, from which it borrows heavily. “Shiri” has the same feel and style of those movies, but with very South Korean sensibilities and subject matter.

The plot is standard for movies like this. A rogue North Korean military officer, along with a bunch of soldiers from his unit, has decided that having two Koreas is not acceptable, so he hatches a plan to steal a top-secret South Korean weapon that looks like water, but can be used as a bomb. (Or something along that line.) The weapon itself is not important, it’s just the McGuffin to get the story rolling. Years before, the gung-ho communist officer had sent over a woman to spy on the South Korean agency that monitors all of these type of events (think CIA or FBI). Activated once again, the spy becomes an assassin, turning Seoul into a shooting gallery.

The only faults I can find with the movie is that the story is not very original (the “secret biological weapon” theme is almost identical to that of “The Rock”) and sometimes the action scenes go on for too long. There are gunfights that run on and on and on, always ending the same way — with nothing solved (at least until the inevitable end). The bad guy doesn’t get killed and neither does the good guy. The only people that ever dies are civilians and some indistinguishable cops, SWAT members, or the rogue officer’s lackeys. I could have done with less nonstop shooting and more consequential action, especially since the film’s army of SWAT guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn if their life depended on it. The film’s favorited scenes always involve SWAT commandos cornering a target within a small enclosed area and unleashing thousands of rounds — and hitting nothing.

Although the film tries to offer up a love story, it’s mostly lost in the hail of bullets and loud explosions. Not only that, but the identity of the female assassin is relatively easy to figure out; and if you can figure that out, then the whole subplot about a possible mole in the good guys’ agency becomes somewhat irrelevant. As such, a large section of the film where the agents suspect one another becomes an excercise in movie time padding. Also, the film seems to want its cake and eat it too — the North Koreans are shown in a nihilistic, vicious light, but the film seems to be asking for mediation between the two countries. If the North Koreans really are as depicted in the film, why in the world would you ever want to reunite with them?

In any case, the movie is a good action film if taken just that — it’s very loud and the action is staged quite effectively. But again, they do seem to go on for way too long, and after a while it all gets a bit repetitive. Run and shoot; talk about it; then run and shoot some more. A little bit of variety might have helped. Also, there are some very obvious product placement. Who knew that the South Korean government’s super duper spy agency was sponsored by a major corporation? It must be, because we see the corporation’s logo on the agency’s helicopter!

I won’t tell you how the movie ends, but you can probably guess. The film is not very original, even though a quiet love story managed to be very effective among the loud gunplay, running, and explosions. The film probably has too many plot points for its own good, and the ending, which takes place at a soccer stadium full of South Korean officials marked for assassination, is quite thrilling.

Je-kyu Kang (director) / Je-kyu Kang (screenplay)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han …. Yu, JongWon
Min-sik Choi …. Park, Mu-young

Buy Shiri on DVD