When it comes to South Korean action thrillers, there are few who can match director (sometimes actor/stuntman) Ryoo Seung-Wan. The man knows how to make his action films with style, intense and even at times, funny….but he certainly knows when and how to make the proper tempo and mood for his action films. He has come a long way since “Arahan”, “No Blood, No Tears”, “The Unjust” and “City of Violence“, and he appears to be on a roll with his latest 2013 Korean film “The Berlin File”. A spy thriller that otherwise appears to be more of the same, Seung-Wan who also writes and directs, comes out with something familiar and yet different; as he manages to make the stakes much more personal. This may be the best spy thriller to hail from Korea since “Shiri”.
A tense arms deal goes horribly wrong, and North Korean operative Pyo Jong-Seong (Ha Jung-Woo, The Yellow Sea) narrowly escapes when Israeli mossad agents barge into the scene. A little lost and surprised, Pyo comes across conflicting evidence as to how things had gone wrong and just who it was who set him up. Meanwhile, a South Korean operative, Jung Jin-Soo (Han Suk-kyu) goes after Pyo in the hopes of decoding his identity and to determine if he is some kind of double agent. What he finds is something much more complicated, as some things did not fit the North Korean’s part of the deal. What makes things worst is that suspicion had arisen on Pyo’s own wife, Jung-Hee (Gianna Jun, The Thieves) who also serves as a translator for the North Korean ambassador and Pyo has 48 hours to prove otherwise. The North Koreans have dispatched a ruthless fixer named Dong Myung-Soo (Ryoo Seung-Bun, Arahan) to get to the bottom of the leak within. Now, Pyo must do what he can to clear himself, save his loveless marriage and try to get to the bottom of a multi-billion dollar account wanted by the Pyongyang authorities.
The film carries some real world devices and moves its elements around in a game of cat and mouse. Those who are familiar with spy thrillers would know the possible scenarios when it comes to films such as this. Government officials with their own agenda, a nation’s reputation at stake, defections and betrayal, a spy who gets burned and set up; but what the movie adds its more personal stake into the matter. I know, you may say that a spy and his wife can also be seen as familiar device, but what the writing does so well is the way it flows to create suspense and thrills that the viewer would be at the edge of his seat. It does an incredible job in setting things up. The screenplay keeps things close and yet distant, as there were two areas that move around the script to get to its finality. On one side, we have Jong-Seung, who is trying to uncover who has betrayed him and the other side, we have a South Korean who wishes to uncover the truth for his country and protect its interests. The writing does a good job in presenting the case from two different viewpoints. It was also nice to see a loyal North Korean character become the main protagonist.
The direction was amazing in dictating the film’s pace. Ryoo Seung-Wan made all the right decisions to create tension, drama and suspense to drive the film’s momentum. His editing was certainly top notch and he takes the set pieces to his advantage. The film was shot in 4 languages, and it gives the film a feeling of authenticity, and it drives a feeling of unpredictability. The film is also incredibly action-packed; shot with loads of style and careful editing that would make the big-shots of Hollywood jealous. The direction certainly knew how to make the action scenes look cool, his editing was steady in keeping up with the action sequences that this may be Ryoo’s most polished film to date. It was easy to become enthralled in the action set pieces as one could easily feel the pain and impact from the hand to hand combat. Yet, Ryoo always took the time to inject the emotions behind each scene. From each gunfire, to every hand-to-hand combat, Ryoo carefully placed the scenes to complement the next, as each action set piece became much more cooler than the previous one. Unlike some of his earlier films that had more style than emotion, Ryoo was able to create emotional and even cerebral tension as Pyo goes about his way trying to figure out the main players. Since the stakes were carefully defined, what was presented were chase sequences, fight choreograph and gun battles that had a personality.
Of course none of these would be effective if the performers lacked the necessary ‘grit’ to pull off the characters’ dimensions. Ha Jung-Woo delivered the proper layers of complexity even in the smallest expression and delivery of the shortest, simplest line. I do have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the range displayed by Ryu Seung-Bun as he skillfully executes his role. The two managed to create the tension necessary for a protagonist and antagonist; and this made the final encounter much more effective in delivering the needed ‘punch’ in the climax. Gianna Jun was also very deft in her performance as was Han Suk-kyu. The main supporting cast also delivered that the action could easily command the attention of its viewer for its entirety. The film did not feel like it was almost 120 minutes, as Ryoo Seung-Wan certainly had me at the palm of his hand with his execution of tense character conflict. Yeah, I know there was a scene outside Pyo's apartment that required a suspension of disbelief since no one seemed to hear what was going on, but Seung-Wan made me almost overlook that minor lack of detail.
Despite the fact that this may be the most polished action thriller I have seen this year, I do have to admit that the main core of the plot felt pretty standard. The writing was definitely not trying to reinvent but rather present things in a way that felt fresh and made for maximum showmanship. I do have to commend the turns it took to become a little erratic and unpredictable, but really the final resolution became a little too expected and it did leave room for a sequel. However, “The Berlin File” has smartly placed action sequences, top notched performances, awesomely staged fights and a breathtaking pace that is sure to awe its audience. The film is exhilarating as Ryoo Seung-wan brings a lot of machismo and quicksilver like flair to his film, that I am sure that we’ll see him directing a Hollywood film very soon. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]