“Who can be a friend in this age?”

That’s the question that beats at the heart of Kim Jee-woon’s elegantly vicious 1920s-set spy thriller transposing the twists and turns of vintage Le Carre or classic war movies (even it’s title a nod to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows), to a Korea that’s buckling under the Japanese occupation and injecting a decidedly Asian shot of pure adrenaline into the deadly, invisible war of duplicity and betrayal being waged in Seoul’s dark, cobbled back alleys and dimly-lit rooms between Resistance fighters and quisling double agents.

Tasked with infiltrating the Resistance by his Japanese masters after the apprehension of a Resistance leader leads to a violent shoot-out, morally ambiguous, world-weary dodgy cop and collaborator Lee Jung-chool (the as ever brilliant Song Kang-ho), under the watchful eye of sadistic and impulsive Japanese agent Hashimoto (Um Tae-go), courts the friendship of antiques dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Train To Busan’s salaryman hero Gong Yoo), the suspected head of a local Resistance cell planning something big.

So begins an intense game of cat-and-mouse as Lee and Woo-jin size each other up, each trying to gauge the other’s true loyalties and motives, at once players and played, Lee trying to use the idealistic young fighter to get closer to the leaders of the Resistance, Woo-jin convinced he can make a double agent out of the turncoat policeman, to rekindle the patriotic spark in the jaded older man.

As a tentative alliance grows between the two men, Lee finds himself sucked into Woo-jin’s dangerous plot to buy explosives and smuggle them from Shanghai to Seoul aboard a speeding express train, Resistance fighters, double agents, femme fatales and Hungarian anarchists all posing as passengers under the noses of Hashimoto and the secret policemen methodically searching each compartment after a tip-off from a stool pigeon, a traitor within their ranks. As the train hurtles towards Seoul and a fiendish trap, can Lee and Woo-jin really trust each other? Can they even trust themselves?

Inspired by true (well, true-ish) events, a 1923 bomb attack on a Japanese government building, Kim Jee-woon’s nail-biting, cloak-and-dagger yarn The Age Of Shadows marks a triumphant return to form for the Korean auteur after his Governator-starring Hollywood misfire, The Last Stand. Working again with cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong (who also shot his pitch-black revenge thriller A Bittersweet Life), Kim Jee-woon’s paints 1920’s Seoul as a shadowy world of muted autumnal browns and greys through which the film’s characters move, only bursting into colour during the bravura train sequence, a half-hour of knife-edge tension at the centre of the film that drags the audience to the edge of their seat and holds them there as the two factions clandestinely hunt each other in while hiding in plain sight, Kim compartmentalising the action and story within the strictly class stratified train carriages, a microcosm of Korean society, Lee flitting desperately between them as he tries to avert the inevitable disaster.

While our sympathies should lie with Gong Yoo’s noble Resistance fighter, willing to sacrifice, love, body and soul for his cause and, indeed, the charming star of Train To Busan makes a decent fist of the role, it’s the magnetic Song Kang-ho’s shabby anti-hero who captivates, a deeply conflicted man forced by his long-buried conscience to act against his own self-interest, think Casablanca with Claude Rains’ duplicitous, double dealing, quisling policeman recast as the hero. Despite the one-dimensional pantomime turns of the Japanese villains and the obvious moral rightness of Woo-jin’s cause, Song keeps the audience on the back foot, his dodgy cop an ambiguous presence we can never quite be sure of, the plots and emotions warring within him barely perceptible on his impassive face.

As ever though, it’s in the action scenes where Kim Jee-woon excels and no matter how wordy or convoluted the plot becomes, how confusing, we’re never far from a hyper-kinetic action scene or a gut-wrenching act of violence. Rivalling his earlier classic I Saw The Devil, the scenes of torture are almost unbearable to watch as sadistic interrogators break bones and rend flesh, pull nails and burn faces, one Resistance fighter biting off his own tongue to prevent himself talking, while the pulse-pounding gun battles that punctuate the action serve as an explosive release of tension, mayhem erupting in plush, luxurious dining cars or in a crowded railway station, the film’s explosive finale an intricate dance of death scored to Ravel’s Bolero that banishes all thoughts of ice dancers.

Ambitious and atmospheric with style to burn, The Age Of Shadows is an ultimately rousing, old-fashioned period spy thriller. They don’t make them like this anymore.

 

DVD Review: The Age Of Shadows
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