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Ryoo Seung Wan, arguably Korea’s top director of action packed blockbusters after the likes of “City of Violence” and “The Unjust”, returns with “The Berlin File”, one of the country’s biggest releases of 2013. The film sees Ryoo taking his cameras overseas to shoot in Germany for a complex, politically charged spy thriller that pits North and South Korean operatives against each other with Russian arms dealers, Mossad agents and terrorists thrown in for good measure. As well as going down well with critics and picking up several nominations at the Baeksang Arts Awards, the film proved extremely popular with audiences, pulling in over 7 million admissions at the Korean box office and enjoying an international release and screenings at festivals.
Set in Berlin, the film opens with a team of South Korean agents led by veteran Jung Jin Soo (Han Suk Kyu, “White Night”) listening in on an arms deal between a Russian broker, a Middle Eastern terrorist and a mysterious North Korean operative. After a raid by unknown assailants ruins everything, the North Korean, actually top agent Pyo Jong Sung (Ha Jung Woo, “The Yellow Sea”), barely escapes with his life and is forced to flee across the rooftops. Trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong, Pyo finds himself under suspicion from his government with the arrival of Dong Myung Soo (the director’s brother Ryoo Seung Bum, “The Unjust”), son of a high ranking North Korean official, sent to Berlin to roust out a traitor. When it emerges that the possible turncoat is in fact Pyo’s wife (Jeon Ji Hyun, “The Theives”), his loyalties are put to the test, and things rapidly spiral out of control as he starts to sense a grand conspiracy behind the scenes.
Although it might sound like there’s a great deal going on in “The Berlin File”, don’t worry, as after a fairly packed opening act it quite quickly settles down into a straightforward Hollywood style “Bourne Identity” type thriller. Not that this is a bad thing by any means, as Ryoo Seung Wan does a great job of hitting just the right balance between grit and gloss, and the film looks great throughout, rattling along at a fine pace. Though Ryoo makes surprisingly little of its potential subtext beyond some vague cold war parallels, the Berlin setting certainly makes for some atmospheric visuals, its greys and murky colours fitting the subject matter perfectly.
The more it goes on, the more the film focuses on its generic thriller elements, some initially intriguing politics being shelved in favour of plot twists, and while some of the moral complexity of “The Unjust” wouldn’t have been unwelcome, the film is intelligently plotted and wins points for taking the time early on to invest in its story and characters. This having been said, the film does get rather predictable during its later stages, none of its revelations or loyalty shifts really amounting to much, and it’s hard not to feel a touch underwhelmed that it never builds to anything more than a pretty standard showdown sequence with everyone pointing guns at everyone else in the usual fashion.
Distracting from the air of familiarity are the action scenes, and here Ryoo again proves himself one of the best directors working in Korea today. While keeping things grounded and believable, the film packs in lots of set pieces, shoot outs and fight scenes, all of which are superbly choreographed and exciting. Featuring some great stunt work, the film is violent and brutal when it needs to be, recalling “Taken” along with the aforementioned “Bourne” films, serving up the same brand of physicality and hard edged combat, mixing it up with guns, bombs, fists and knives.
As he did in “The Yellow Sea”, Ha Jung Woo makes for a great action protagonist, and though he doesn’t say much, he comes across as every inch the desperate and dangerously skilled agent on the run. The supporting cast are similarly strong and help give the material a boost, Jeon Ji Hyun doing well in a fairly typical role and Han Suk Kyu playing things suitably tough and mean. Ryoo Seung Bum is great fun as the villainous and psychotic Dong, and though his over the top histrionics are kind of at odds with the film’s grim and serious air, he’s certainly enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, the good performance work is undermined by some atrocious western acting, in particular John Keogh, whose turn as a CIA operative is at times painful to watch – surely something that could have been ironed out given that the film was after all shot in Europe.
Nevertheless, neither this nor the general predictability that creeps in towards the end is enough to derail what is one of the better Korean action thrillers of the last year. Though not as satisfying as his masterful “The Unjust”, with “The Berlin File” Ryoo Seung Wan is still very much at the top of his game, and has served up another couple hours of superior entertainment that should definitely please genre fans.
Seung-wan Ryoo (director) / Seung-wan Ryoo (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-woo Ha … Pyo, Jong-Seong
Suk-kyu Han … Jeong Jin-soo
Seung-beom Ryu … Dong, Myeong-soo
Gianna Jun … Ryeon, Jung-hee
Pasquale Aleardi … Dagan
Numan Açar … Abdul