One of the few films that managed to interest me in Korean cinema is the sleeper hit that awed many critics, wowed audiences in Fantasia, and is among Yun Jin-Kim's first starring roles before she achieved U.S. mainstream fame in "Lost". SHIRI (1999) is a South Korean espionage action thriller that has the qualities of an expensive Hollywood flick but maintains a touch of Asian cinema--full of Hong Kong coolness and Korean emotions. I have no idea as to why it took me this long to review this blockbuster Korean film, but I supposed it's better late than never.
An expert sniper who remains unseen and unidentified has been methodically killing off key figures in South Korean intelligence, most recently an arms smuggler poised to reveal vital information to special agents Ryu and Lee. (Han Suk-Kyu and Song Kang-Ho respectively) Ryu instinctively suspects that the killing is the handiwork of a female operative named Hee who is North Korea's most lethal assassin. She had avoided capture for quite sometime and is responsible for the execution of many government officials. Meanwhile, a group of North Korean extremists led by Park Mu-Young (Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy) had acquired a new undetectable bomb in liquid form called the CTX. Seems like there is a leak in South Korean intelligence since the North side seems to be always a step ahead. Ryu and Lee become suspicious of each other while they try to retrieve the CTX and foil the plot for disaster. To make things more complicated, Ryu is about to get married to a beautiful woman (Yun Jin-Kim) and it may be a sign of impending doom.
The characters in the film managed to become a breathing presence. Although truth be told the character development is a little restrained, the depth of each one most specifically their interactions have a lot of merit and helps the viewer form an attachment to them. These agents have personal lives, even the villains are well-rounded. All the characters have a presence and they feel very real; that even though you barely know who they are, one can't help but to feel their convincing situation. Agents Ryu and Lee are very similar although one of them is engaged, but both are equally committed to their job. Hyun (played by Yun Jin-Kim) is the type of woman any man would love to marry, and she is very likable. The acting is very good, but of course the film isn't one without any flaws. Some scenes were dangerously close to becoming overly sentimental, (the scene with the speech by Park) but I could excuse it since it was a way for the villain to achieve an essence of humanity. This is a Korean film, and the Korean people love character drama and political dramas.
Now, the film is a well-polished action movie and it is a popcorn film. The plot does give doses of emotion and character but nonetheless it is an eye-candy popcorn film. There are a lot of swat teams running around, laser-guided rifles, bullets flying all over the place provide excitement but honestly, some were a tad exaggerated and unrealistic. (but not as overly stylish as a John Woo action flick) I was a little distracted with the occasional "shaky" camera movement, but it doesn't really hamper the film too much. The film's pace carries a lot of momentum and the proceedings are never dull. Thankfully, the film's action has a sense of restraint and director Kang Je-Kyu knew how to balance its fast-paced elements with its calmer parts that even the dialogue will not bore you. The soundtrack has strong similarities to a Michael Bay film, and adds some commercial appeal.
Suffice it to say, if you're the type of person who loves eye-candy visual style, brisk action sequences, with a touch of human drama then "Shiri" is definitely for you. The film has the themes of love, trust, loyalty and fortitude that may seemed a little clichéd at first impression (the North vs. South Korea political intrigue), but believe me, the film's structure is solid enough that you will feel the characters and buy into the experience. This film is a significant achievement in Asian cinema, I've read that this film surpassed "Titanic" as South Korea's leading blockbuster. The film is beautifully executed and carries more depth and tragic fate than a typical Hollywood movie. I guess if you like espionage action-thrillers, then "Shiri" will not disappoint.
Highly Recommended! [4 out of 5 Stars]
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