The Age of Shadows is both fun and depressing; a mixed-genre film that dramatises a tale of South Korea’s darkest times and is everything it sets out to be.
With the backdrop of 1920’s Korea and Japan’s dominating occupation, there is a rich and devastating history that The Age of Shadows pulls from – telling its story through the lens of a noir/spy/action/thriller. Opening with one heck of an action sequence where one rebel member tries to avoid capture from an entire police squad, it certainly starts with a bang. This scene is incredibly well choreographed and directed, but this is predominantly a noir film and its action status takes a backseat after its thrilling introduction.
We are introduced to our central character, the police captain Lee Jeong-Chool (Song Kang-Ho), who was once in support of the rebel movement (fondly titled the Righteous Brotherhood) but has since defected under Japan’s rule. When ordered to take down these rebels with his new partner, the young and deadly Hashimoto (Um Tae-Goo), Lee Jung-Chool claims that he can infiltrate the group of activists quietly and cleverly.
The Age of Shadows introduces us to its impressive roster of characters in a steady stream, gradually meeting the key members of the Righteous Brotherhood only when relevant. First we meet the art dealer Kim Woo-Jin (Gong Yoo), and we get a tease of the integral female character Han Hi-Min (Yeon Gye-Soon) but don’t see her again until the next act. It wonderfully adds to the plot point that she is an important rebel informant, but the Japanese police have yet to identify her face, so the director obscures hers from you whenever he can.
Lee Jeong-Chool meets the secret rebel/art dealer Kim Woo-Jin pretending to be interested in his money-making schemes, however Kim sees right through his plan and starts a dangerous game of his own. The film plays out the classic double-agent-or-is-he-a-triple-agent trope and tries to keep you guessing which side he’s on.
While The Age of Shadows is not a subtle movie and can be somewhat predictable, the director has executed it very well. With fantastic noir lighting and beautiful locations, you are easily taken back in time and the threat to Korea’s independence feels very real. Even though history has already told us the outcome, the playful and intense performances keep you rooting for the losing side.
I want to say so much more about this movie, like how it is not for the faint of heart and they should have hands ready to cover their eyes, or that the only Western actor is given about 3 lines of dialogue and only given the title – ‘The Foreigner’ – but when all is said and done, The Age of Shadows is rich with suspense, laughs and intrigue. It may be quite lengthy and sometimes simplistic, but it is definitely entertaining.
Official submission of South Korea for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category of the 89th Academy Awards in 2017.