2 out of 5
Directed by: Kim Jee-woon
Very broadly, we can say that the intention of movies is to entertain. Broadly so that the definition of that can encompass various genres, from horror to documentary, where ‘entertainment’ equals keeping us watching, be it via tension, or fascination with the subject matter, or slambang action sequences, or etc. And so when a film doesn’t manage to keep me very enthralled – falling asleep in a theater, or constant pauses at home – I have to question why: whether or not I was in the right frame of mind, if I wasn’t the target audience, etc. The ‘frame of mind’ is less of a problem when I’m at home, and can view / stream at my leisure, so in those cases, it will very much boil down to the competence of the film’s construction, and if I can say that something was well made or even well intentioned for its purposes, then it gets some leniency.
Historical films, and historical fiction, can be an especially tough sell there. When you’re choosing an event to portray, perhaps it’s because the story just sticks out, but sometimes it’s to cover something ‘important,’ such as, with The Age of Shadows, the Korean resistance movement against Japanese rule in the early 1900s. As I’ve often stated, I’m not a student (or fan) of history, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a well-told tale, and that’s where this film genre has a puzzle to solve: things will inevitably be ‘heightened,’ and likely compressed, to make for a palatable film experience, and in doing so, are you still serving the subject matter? Or does it become Hollywood pap?
There are interesting things in The Age of Shadows. Song Kang-ho is fantastic as Lee Jung-chool, a Korean man working for the Japanese police, at odds with himself as he wishy-washes between sides, trying to play it safe while not doing undue harm to his countrymen. But he can’t quite maintain that balance as tensions strain; the bulk of the movie has Kang-ho trying to delay his masters while half-helping key resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin (a very charming and watchable Gong Yoo) stay one step ahead of things as the resistance attempts to smuggle some explosives for resistance-y deeds. This back and forth is played cooly by director / adapter Kim Jee-woon, keeping us uncertain who’s going to betray whom from scene to scene, making ample use of Kang-ho’s ability to somehow have a completely expressionless face that communicates an insane amount of inner contemplation at the same time.
But… the structure of the movie ends up giving us very little to which to latch onto. To be fair, it avoids overt rah-rah nationalism, but at the same time, despite showing us the occasionally dispiriting results of these resistance members’ efforts, the impact of what’s happening never quite lands. The initial event that kicks off Jung-chool’s steps toward the resistance is played as a badass action sequence, and much of the stirring moments of the film that follow – a train sequence, a shootout in a crowd – are the same, with Jee-woon’s zooms and quick pans overtly flashy and yet unmotivated; they are capturing a different movie than we’re watching. And outside of Kang-ho, we’re not given much from a character perspective to work with. Gong Yoo has a fair amount of screen time, but it’s rather event based, i.e. he’s on screen going from A to B, but beyond one scene alongside resistance leader Che-san (familiar Jee-woon star Lee Byung-hun), we don’t get much of a sense of the rhymes or reasons for his dedication, which, unfortunately, renders his behaviors – along with his other group members – as going through the motions. When sides are flip-flopped at various points, we know it’s ‘serious’ due to film shorthand, but it doesn’t really feel that way.
There’s potentially some commentary mixed in here about the general facelessness of the conflict, or the greyness of black and white morality; perhaps the unaffecting tone of the film is purposeful, but I feel like that’s a stretch. It’s shot too competently for that. It’s also possible that my Americanness prevents me from getting invested, but I have to go back to my initial thoughts on what makes for a successful movie, and The Age of Shadows doesn’t meet that. I experienced no sense of stakes or emotional detachment, and while it’s shot and edited slickly, there’s a huge tonal mismatch between my take on the subject matter and how it’s presented that makes it largely unsatisfying.