Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).
Writing in his book 'The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema', Kim Kyung Hyun discusses the male-centric narratives found in Korean cinema of the 1980s and 90s. Discussing the film Shiri (1999), he argues that “The masculinity of Shiri’s protagonist veered away from the Korean male icons of the 1980s, but it did so by simulating Hollywood action heroes.” Shiri could easily be argued as the breakthrough moment for both commercial Korean cinema and genre cinema in general, creating a wave of films which heavily copied its style. The mainstream Korean film industry has thrived off genre cinema for the past decade, with the occasional ‘well-made’ film (films which are both commercially successful and show clear artistic intent, a perfect example being Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder from 2003) thrown in for good measure.
2012 brought with it many highs for Korean cinema, and it’s telling that the two highest grossing Korean films of the year were strong genre entriess. One director who has seemingly concentrated his entire career on examining one genre, the action film, is Ryu Seung-wan. His latest film, The Berlin File, is a clear example of a film maker working within the boundaries of a genre to achieve a satisfying experience. It’s also a rather interesting extension of the ideas Kim Kyung Hyun raised when talking about Shiri.
The film’s narrative is a generic spy tale involving multiple double-crosses, a man on the run and shady deals happening in the official sectors of society. Ryu employs frequent collaborator Jung Doo-hong as his action director, and as such there are many confident and breathtaking action sequences to be found throughout the film: the quick editing is handled well and the blows come quick and fast, carrying sufficient punch to come across as intense life or death battles. Due to Ryu’s clear Hong Kong influence, these action scenes make great use of each location, be it cramped rooms or wide open fields. Also worth noting is how the film makes clear distinctions between how the North and South Koreans engage in battle; the North use close combat whilst the Southern agents prefer to use guns.
Made over a decade after Shiri, this film at first glance seems to continue the highly Hollywood style masculinity of the protagonist: able to overcome incredible odds to reach his goal, confident and focused. Yet further inspection seems to show signs of criticism about this genre character. North Korean agent Pyo Jong-sung is betrayed, and yet he is punished for attempting to continue his quest for vengeance. His stubborn and masculine actions ultimately cause him to fail in achieving his goal; nothing is really changed by the travails. No longer is the protagonist able to stop the bomb, get the girl and walk off into the sunset. Instead, he achieves vengeance but at the cost of re-establishing an equilibrium in his life.
Pyo Jong-Sung is aided in his quest by the South Korean agent Jung Jin-soo, played by Han Suk-kyu, who also played the protagonist of Shiri discussed above. Throughout this film, agent Jung is outmatched, constantly one step behind, and ultimately only able to offer brief assistance during the final act. As he crouches alone in a field, it’s hard not to see this as some kind of ritualistic hand over of the Hollywood masculinity to the new, troubled version of masculinity found in Pyo Jong-sung. As Hollywood continues to present its aging action stars in the same way through films like A Good Day to Die Hard and the Expendables franchise, Ryu’s The Berlin File seems more interested in switching its focus to a new kind of masculinity.
The Berlin File is a great genre film, with great performances and action. The plot offers little new, but the film’s presentation more than makes up for this. There are, of course, a few missteps along the way – a very Bourne-esque epilogue felt unnecessary and the overly masculine focus offers little for any of the female roles – but, most likely due to my intense love for genre cinema, I feel that The Berlin File stands as a great example of Korean genre cinema, and shows Ryu Seung-wan confidently exploring the action genre once again.
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