The Age of Shadows

Review by John Wadsworth

Directed by

Kim Jee-woon

Starring

Lee Byung-hun Song Kang-ho Yoo Gong

Anticipation.

Alongside Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, 2017 looks set to be a stellar year for South Korean cinema.

Enjoyment.

Come for the plot, stay for the visual polish.

In Retrospect.

Plenty of blood but few fleshed-out characters.

Wily resistance fighters take on wicked foreign occupiers in this breathless period thriller set in 1920s Korea.

The Age of Shadows opens with a taut cat-and-mouse chase between the opposing forces of Korea and Japan in the 1920s. Bullets are sprayed, blood splattered, and a toe is pinched and plucked from the bone. The assailant appears to be ruthless police captain Lee Jung-chool (played by the reliably excellent Song Kang-ho), a Korean earning a healthy salary by turning fellow compatriots over to his Japanese overlord.

Yet the film soon pivots, with Jung-chool emerging as the morally conflicted protagonist. We sense that his loyalty to Japan has its limits, and this hunch is confirmed when an alcohol-fuelled meeting with resistance member Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) sows the seed of dissent. Caught within a web of double agents, Jung-chool attempts to play both sides against the middle. In a further complication,  the Japanese police chief assigns the hot-headed Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo) to monitor his every move.

The twists and turns are generally handled well, but the script is not without its flaws. At times, the dialogue gives the impression of ushering the viewer, uninformed, into a conversation at its midpoint. The Japanese characters are decidedly one-dimensional, while the majority of the resistance members are underdeveloped and overlooked. Even Jung-chool’s part feels curiously lacking in substance, and leans a little too heavily on Song’s assured performance.

More appealing than the story itself, though, are the backdrops against which everything plays out. The costumes are lavish, the props bear evidence of careful consideration – the scuffed weapons, for one – and the set design pays similarly close attention to detail. This precision is complemented by Kim Ji-yong’s crisp cinematography, and by the steady hand of genre-juggling director Kim Jee-woon – back in Korea after helming 2013’s Arnie comeback vehicle The Last Stand.

The action sequences are especially effective, never more so than the film’s centrepiece aboard a moving train. An inventive use of space sees various compartments and carriages used to monitor different factions trading words in private, before clashing in a well-executed public showdown. One particularly neat moment sends us bounding down the aisle in pursuit of the combat, with the camera reflexively jerking upwards as a gunshot rings out.

While an ensuing incident ups the carnage quotient almost immediately, from here on Kim struggles to capture the same energy. At 140 minutes, The Age of Shadows is a film that peaks early and ends late. Still, there is an upside to this ponderousness. It makes the bursts of violence all the more striking, providing plenty of opportunity to drink in the rich settings and glorious period detail.

Published 24 Mar 2017

Tags: Kim Jee-woon South Korean Cinema

Anticipation.

Alongside Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, 2017 looks set to be a stellar year for South Korean cinema.

Enjoyment.

Come for the plot, stay for the visual polish.

In Retrospect.

Plenty of blood but few fleshed-out characters.

Suggested For You

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja gets a mysterious first-look teaser

By Little White Lies

The director’s Tilda Swinton-starring latest looks at the bond between man and animal.

Watch the first trailer for Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaid

By Little White Lies

Sarah Walters provides the literary source for the Korean maestro’s Cannes-bound latest.

The lives of Korean women as seen through the eyes of female directors

By Matt Turner

This year’s LKFF offered a refreshing counterpoint to the masculine narratives that continue to dominate Korean cinema.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design