The Age of Shadows is a period piece that combines the intensity of a spy movie with beautiful scenes of Korea in the early 1920s, during the Japanese occupation. The shadows are a reference to the subversive plotting that goes on throughout the movie. There are double agents, spies and all kinds of deception that remind us that all is fair in love and war, especially in the face of nationalism. Nothing like a foreign occupation to bring out the most patriotic feelings in bright young soldiers! The film depicts the quest for independence in unlikely circumstances, but also makes for a good political thriller since you can’t help but root for the underdog.
From the opening scenes, this unrelenting political thriller offers suspense and intense fast-paced sequences accompanied by a score by Mowg that makes history come alive in the most vivid way. Lee Jong-chool (Song Kang-Ho) is a Korean police captain. He is involved with the Japanese establishment but also works with the Korean liberation people. It is a tricky spot, one that leads him to overstretch himself as a human being. The resistance is looking to obtain weapons and they soon find out that the Hungarian liberation army might be able to lend a hand.
The Japanese commander is not only ruthless but relentless in his “hard hand.” When he confronts Lee Jong-chool about possibly working for the other side, he recognizes his lot in life to be Korean, and makes it very clear that Japanese rule is there to stay, and there is no choice but to follow it or die. His office, even decorated with Japanese flags, is a constant reminder of the quest that is still before him, one that we continue to feel throughout most of the film, he will not be able to accomplish. Lee Jong-chool is for sure the most interesting character, as we are not sure exactly for which side he is working for. That is one of the best elements of this action film. Though based on historical facts, we have no idea where the action is headed.
The most wanted man, Kim Woo Jin (Yoo Gong) is a young man, and the leader of the Korean resistance. It’s a small group, against the big establishment with military might that is Japan. Indeed a David and Goliath story. The Japanese commander takes a personal interest in personally taking Kim Woo Jin down. This personal hatred leads to one of the most intense scenes in the film, which — full disclosure — might be too much for some to handle. Indeed, our band of heroes is the subject of so much abuse, if you were not rooting for them early on, by the last 20 minutes of the film you will find yourself wanting them to take down the Empire of the rising sun.
The aesthetic elements of The Age of Shadows are outstanding. Every period detail is carefully considered and even the lighting provides environmental and mood elements that surely take you inside Korea during that time. The music is also used tactically; some of the action sequences are reminiscent of a Tarantino film with ironic use of musical elements and fast takes that cut between events, revealing the behind-the-scenes action at every turn. Clearly the direction by Kim Jee Woon keeps up the pace, which is remarkable given the length of this film.
The action scenes will not just have you at the edge of your seat, but they are also shot in a way that engages viewers at a psychological level, as well. With so many hidden agendas and secrets that are best kept hidden, it is up to the audience to piece together how these “shadows” may look if under the light. The artistic quality and action keep you plugged in through this ride toward liberation.
The Age of Shadows runs 140 minutes, is in Korean and Japanese with English subtitles and it is not rated (trigger warning: there are some intense scenes of violence). It opened national wide on Sept. 21st and will open in South Florida on Oct. 13 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For screenings nationwide, visit this link and click on “Theaters.” Photos and a screener link were provided by CJ Entertainment for the purposes of this review.