He has been called the Korean Quentin Tarantino but Ryoo Seung-wan, the man behind such films as Crying Fist and The City of Violence, is far less interested in pastiche than the Django Unchained director. In his latest film The Berlin File there’s no constant witty swearing, eclectic soundtrack or particularly memorable characters but rather a solid though not exactly remarkable spy thriller.
The plot centres on North Korean spy Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) who finds himself amid chaotic action after an arms deal with a Russian broker and a Middle Eastern terrorist in a Berlin hotel goes wrong. Narrowly escaping with his life, he begins to suspect he’s been set up by a double-agent and a complicated conspiracy unravels from there.
I would like to say that to reveal more than that would be to give it away but frankly it’s all so convoluted that it’s hard to work out exactly what’s going on throughout. Ryoo’s 9th feature impresses greatly in parts but disappoints in others. It provides some terrific action set pieces with bullets and punches flying like they’re going out of fashion, all amid a rather perplexing political plot that trades dealing with some of its characterization issues and making the plot clear for a for a dizzying pace and spectacle. This is both a good and a bad thing as while it entertains in the moment it becomes frustrating when it all fails to come together or be properly explained by the end.
Its political plot dealing North and South Korean relations sets things up for an interesting and brave look at some sensitive real-world political issues but the film never has the means to deal with them properly. It’s far more interested in its action-thriller aesthetic and that’s fine to a point. It just means it’s a fun watch but one that doesn’t add up to a whole lot.
One for hardcore fans of Korean cinema in general, Ryoo’s latest effort is unnecessarily complicated, making it hard work when it grinds to a near halt to deal with its political thriller ambitions. But it makes up for that with some genuinely exhilirating action that finds inventive ways to breathe life into otherwise familiar situations. It feels like something of a hodgepodge of films gone by, with shades of everything from the Bourne series to The Raid, all mixed together to make for an enjoyable if overly convoluted action-thriller.