This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.
Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows is a picturesque patriotic period piece, an espionage thriller unfolding against the backdrop of late twenties Korea.
With the Japanese controlling the country, Captain Lee Jung-chool finds himself caught between the occupying forces and the local resistance. Alliances shift, manipulations unfold. Nobody can be trusted, and everything is doubt. Over the course of The Age of Shadows, the plot twists and turns, with shocking reveals and startling betrayals. Everything is beautifully captured on film, with some fantastic work by cinematographer Kim Ji-yong.
The Age of Shadows might be a little longer (and a little more twisty) than it really needs to be, padding out its run-time with gambits and counter-gambits that occasionally lean on flashbacks to provide essential context for the latest shift in allegiance. However, The Age of Shadows is also incredibly graceful, transitioning beautifully between a wide variety of tones and genres without ever missing a step. The Age of Shadows opens as an action film, contorts in a cat-and-mouse thriller, then becomes a more conventional patriotic epic.
In spite of its flaws with pacing and length, The Age of Shadows remains an impressive piece of cinema.
As his filmography attests, writer and director Kim Jee-woon understands genre. Jee-woon certainly has a unique vision, but he also has a very clear affection for the history and language of cinema. His films always work on their own terms, but they are particularly enjoyable as genre pastiche. The Good, The Bad and the Weird is perhaps the most obvious example, but that is true across the length and breadth of his filmography. In fact, it could be argued that Jee-woon’s understanding of genre is what allows him to transition so skilfully between them.
The Age of Shadows is very firmly rooted in a particular time and place, in the struggle for Korean independence during the Japanses occupation between the First and Second World Wars. However, the movie is as much informed by cinematic history as cultural legacy. The Age of Shadows might be a patriotic ode to a time of national struggle, but it is also a love letter to a particular style of genre film. There are times at which The Age of Shadows plays almost as a love letter to pulpy thirties and forties American cinema.
Indeed, the first two acts of The Age of Shadows even evoke Steven Spielberg’s classic pulp homages in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film repeatedly emphasises this stylistic overlap, opening with an antiques deal that devolves into a spectacular action sequence and luxuriating in the period costumes and sets shot with angles and framing that consciously evoke classic Hollywood sensibilities. The Age of Shadows is a lavish production that emphasises its own stylistic approach to the material.
As much as The Age of Shadows might draw up real-life history, it speaks the language of cinema. The choreography for the action scenes eschews naturalism in favour of impressive stuntwork and balletic choreography that feels more at home in a pulp picture than a historical epic. All of the characters smoke as if this is the only way that they know how to convey their ambiguity, making sure that they are bathed in ambient light in a way that heightens the atmosphere. The Ages of Shadows is a beautiful film, one that revels in its filmic stylings.
However, the real charm of Jee-woon’s direction lies in the skill with which he transitions between genres. The Age of Shadows is consistently impressive, even as it embarks upon a whirlwind tour of cinematic genres. It opens with an action scene that would not seem out of place in a wuxia film, as soldiers dance across rooftops trying to capture a hero who moves with incredible grace. Then it becomes a more conventional espionage thriller, as loyalties are tested and betrayal is seeded.
At one point, the film spends more than half-an-hour on a train journey, playing out an extending game of cat-and-mouse as soldiers hunt rebels while Lee Jung-chool is caught between them. These scenes drip with tension, keeping the audience on edge as the factions play off one another. In any other film, this train journey would either be the whole film or a shorter ten-minute segment of it. Instead, Jee-woon makes the sequence exactly as long as he feels that it needs to be, with The Age of Shadows feeling like a different film before and after it.
These transitions are never jarring, with is a credit to Jee-woon. In fact, the brutality and horror of the film’s final third is so effective because it plays against the more stylised and genre-heavy material in the first two acts. Breaking the story and the scenes down, The Age of Shadows feels like it should be a messier film than it ultimately is. The Age of Shadows is incredibly graceful when it comes to shifting between these approaches to story and character. The shifts never feel like jolts, never knock the audience out of the film.
At the same time, there is a sense that The Age of Shadows is less than the sum of its many beautiful parts. While it is hard to criticise any of the individual components, or even how they integrate into one another, there is a sense that The Age of Shadows might have benefited from a tighter edit. While the themes and quality of the film do not suffer from the various tonal shifts, some of the characters get lost in the transitions. In particular, Lee Jung-chool’s character arc feels strangely truncated for a film of this length.
However, these are relatively minor problems. The Age of Shadows is a beautiful and rich film.
I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3