The 1920s, when Korea has fallen under Japanese rule.
Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), a Korean police captain in the Japanese police force, is given a special mission to infiltrate the armed resistance fighting for Korean independence. He approaches Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a leader of the resistance. These two men who stand on opposite sides of their histori- cal era, each knowing the identity and intentions of the other, become close without revealing their inner thoughts. Meanwhile intel is being leaked on both sides, and no one knows who the informants are. Members of the resistance meet in Shanghai to obtain explosives that will be used to destroy facilities of the Japanese Headquarters in Seoul, while the Japanese police follow them and gather in Shanghai. The pursued and the pursuers, locked in an operation where each side uses the other and is thrown into a confusion of secret enmity and conciliation. Meanwhile, a train carrying explosives passes the border and heads towards Seoul...
It's not every day that you get to kick back to a movie by a certain director and are surprised by their range and ability. Jee-woon Kim has been on the Korean film scene for awhile now gracing cinema screens with an eclectic and energetic assortment of flicks like I Saw The Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good The Bad The Weird, and he even helped relaunch Schwarzenegger's film career with the playfully hyper-violent The Last Stand. Likewise, Jee-woon Kim brings his talents to the historic period thriller The Age of Shadows with splendid results.
Japan has taken control of Korea. As the Japanese strangle control of the country, a gang of resistance fighters has emerged in Seoul to fight a guerrilla campaign against the occupying forces. Korean police captain Jung-chool Lee (Kang-ho Song) has been tasked with rooting out these resistance fighters. As Jung-chool soon learns, these men are former comrades making his connection to the resistance and his Japanese superiors alto personal.
When the leader of the resistance Chae-san Jeong (Byung-hun Lee) emerges to turn Jung-chool to their side, Jung-chool's sadistic Japanese counterpart Hashimoto (Tae-goo Um) ratchets up his campaign of cruelty. Soon, Jung-chool's loyalties to his own people and his loyalties to duty are put to the ultimate test. Will he turn over the resistance? Or will he become a freedom fighter and help them carry out their gorilla campaign?
Going into The Age of Shadows, I expected a film that was far more hyper-violent with swirling camera angles and a gratuitous amount of bloodletting. If you've only ever seen a couple of Jee-woon Kim's previous films, that would be a natural expectation. What I wasn't ready for was the director's decidedly restrained and mature approach. While it is playing up the historical angle and can feel a bit neo-patriotic at times, the film's heart is in the right place and wisely focuses on character development rather than becoming a rote and routine actioner - which is honestly what I was expecting. So color me impressed!
The film hangs on the interactions Kang-ho Song's Jung-chool has with the people that surround him. As a police captain, he believes in the rule of law and order and considers the actions of the resistance dishonorable. However, he has utmost disdain for Hashimoto's brutal tactics and those of the occupying Japanese forces. He's a man torn between two minds and two countries and Song pulls it off perfectly. While his appearance amounts to a prolonged cameo, I do have to give a shoutout to Byung-hun Lee as the resistance leader Chae-san. His Chae-san and Tae-goo Um's Hashimoto are the perfect Devil and Angel wrestling for Jung-chool's conscience.
Those familiar with 2015's Assassination from director Dong-hoon Choi will no doubt sniff out some distinct story similarities. Both wrestle with the ideas of honor, loyalty, and duty. Both films take place in the same mid-late 1920s era of Korean history. However, I give The Age of Shadows the edge as I felt that Assassination was hung up due to some misguided story structure issues. The Age of Shadows keeps things far simpler without the need to jump around the timeline of historic events the way Assassination did.
Taken as a whole, The Age of Shadows is a fine, by-the-numbers thriller. There really aren't too many story surprises as the tale itself is a bit on the familiar side. However, I can't deny that the rich production design, the terrific performances from its central cast, and the restrained and mature direction of Jee-woon Kim keeps the film floating well above average. It may not have too many surprises, but what it does have is well worth watching.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Age of Shadows arrives on Blu-ray in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD package from CJ Entertainment. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a sturdy two-disc snapper Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other CJ Entertainment releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
With a beautiful 1080p 2.39:1 transfer, The Age of Shadows earns some terrific Blu-ray bonus points. The image is steeped in details allowing viewers to soak in the terrific production design, costuming, and makeup effects work. Colors are bold without being too prominent favoring darker earth tones over eye-popping primaries to maintain a nicely "period" vibe. Black levels are deep and inky free of any crush issues and provide a terrific sense of depth. I wasn't able to learn if this was shot on film or digital, but due to some slight noise issues during a couple of the darker scenes, I would suspect that it was shot and transferred from a digital source. Free of any serious compression artifacts, this is a pretty terrific Blu-ray transfer.
The Age of Shadows arrives with a pair of worthwhile audio tracks. The disc's default audio track is an English-dubbed DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. A Korean DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix with English Subtitles is also available. As I said, both tracks are good. The English dubbing is actually fairly good and the mix of music scoring and sound effects balance nicely to create a solid sense of imaging. However, I prefer the original Korean. The sound effects and scoring sound more natural with the original spoken language than the English dubbing. Imaging is also much more effective proving a rich sense of immersion, especially during the opening chase sequence. The dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any interference. Levels for both the English and Korean tracks are set nicely providing pleasing high and low tonal shifts without any need to adjust the volume. Again, while the English dubbing is actually very good, I give the edge to the original Korean mix if for no other reason than it provides a more organic experience.
Bonus features are unfortunately on the slim side consisting of the tried and true EPK-style interview bits and piece. I wish more had been offered to the production design and the work that went into capturing1920s Korea. This is a rich and beautiful looking film so that's a bit of a missed opportunity. What's here is at least worth watching.
Interviews With The Cast (HD 5:20) As I said this is a pretty standard EPK interview set with the cast discussing their characters.
Interview With Jee-Woon Kim (HD 21:06) This interview feature, while still in the Q&A EPKY style does offer up a substantial more amount of depth about the production.
It's great to see a director like Jee-woon Kim continually shake things up. The Age of Shadows is a solid period thriller sporting terrific production design, rich and interesting characters, and a parade of terrific performances. It may not be the must wholly original story, but it doesn't need to be to be a successful and worthwhile watch. CJ Entertainment brings The Age of Shadows to Blu-ray in terrific order with a top-notch A/V presentation. Bonus features may be slim but they do offer up some interesting tidbits. Those eager for a nice bit of suspense, drama, and action will get their fix with The Age of Shadows. Recommended.