Korean Films in Review: The Berlin File
‘The Berlin File’ is the highly anticipated, fast paced action film of international secrecy and plotting from acclaimed director and screenwriter Ryoo Seung-wan and has lived up to the hype that preceded its release.
The action starts immediately when a negotiation between Pyo (Ha Jung-woo), a North Korean ‘ghost’ agent, a Russian arms dealer and an anti-Western Arab ends in violent chaos in a Berlin hotel. After narrowly escaping the shoot-out, Pyo is then thrust into a tense international network of espionage and secrets and comes to suspect that he is being set up by a double agent.
Shortly after the shoot-out, a dangerous and highly trained top agent (Ryoo Seung-bum) arrives from Pyongyang to uncover a possible double agent in the North Korean embassy in Germany. The double agent (according to the top agent) is none other than Pyo’s wife (Gianna Jun) who is a German interpreter at the embassy. In order to protect his wife, Pyo forms a shaky allegiance with South Korean agent Jung (Hang Suk-kyu), who is unsure of his own superiors and tries to re-acclimatise himself.
The plot of ‘The Berlin File’ is incredibly elaborate and full of tension and suspense. At times things can get a little confusing and the film moves so fast that there are few opportunities to re-cap on what you might have missed. It is a film that may take a few viewings to get the most of what it has to offer, but re-watches won’t be a chore, but rather a joy.
The essential underlying themes of the story come down to the turbulent and blurred lines between professional roles and personal feelings, for example Pyo’s status as a North Korean national hero. Loyalty is also a key theme, especially concerning the marriage between Pyo and his wife.
The direction is crisp and clean to such an extent that the unreal has an impressive sense of realism. The action packed scenes of hand to hand combat between trained spies could easily come across as over-the-top and overly exaggerated were they in the hands of anyone less skilled than Ryoo Seung-wan. This skill has probably been adapted and refined over time as Ryoo Seung-wan is both friend and colleague to Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon – both of whom are legendary and critically acclaimed directors themselves.
The sets are breath-taking and beautifully shot. The contrast between cold tones – steel, concrete and apartment buildings and warm tones – fields, restaurants and interiors are truly masterful.
The international locations, characters and casts seem to indicate an effort on South Korean cinema’s part to attempt to broaden their cinema scope to an international market, and it seems to be a successful trend recently with the successes of Kin Jee-woon’s ‘The Last Stand’, Park Chan-wook’s ‘Stoker’ and the upcoming release from Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’ which is predicted to be a big success. If ‘The Berlin File’ is anything to judge this trend by, and in my opinion I think that it is, then I think that Korean cinema will have plenty more to give to the international film market.
In a previous article I predicted that ‘The Berlin File’ would be one of the top Korean films of 2013, and given that it was the most heavily attended Korean film by press at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I think that we could be onto a real winner.
‘The Berlin File’ is also a perfect introductory film for any newbies to foreign cinema. The film is mostly in Korean, followed by English and German and it also has a scattering of Arabic within it. This mix of languages is a good way to break someone into ‘reading’ a film, as their ears can detect differences in accents and languages, helping to separate plots for those who are not yet adjusted to watching the screen and reading subtitles. Also, despite the film being 2 hours long, there is relatively little dialogue but when there are long scenes of speech, it is often broken up by prolonged scenes of action in which there is no speech at all.
‘The Berlin File’ is a great example of contemporary Korean cinema and combines fantastic elements; suspense, action, violence and love together to create a masterpiece that should be seen at least once by all fans of Korean cinema.
The Berlin File will be screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Focus on Korea strand on 23rd and 25th of June. For more information about Focus on Korea and all the film times and details, click here.
Have you seen this film? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments.
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