Best ever? Not so fast.
While ‘Berlin’ may break box-office records, the film is more solid than brilliant
By Yun Suh-young
It’s only February, but the Korean film industry may have already seen its movie of the year.
After selling more than 5 million tickets in 14 days through Feb. 12, the spy thriller “The Berlin File” is safely on course to become one of the most successful Korean movies ever.
This represents a similar pace as “The Thieves,” the top local movie of the record breaking attendance of 2012. Even the status of “The Host,” the highest grossing Korean film of all time after selling 13 million tickets in 2006, seems within striking distance.
But is “Berlin” as good as Korean movies can get? Sitting through two hours of intense drama and high-wire action sequences, it becomes clear that the film, the latest addition to the “Jason Bourne School” of spy movies that have been redefining the genre, delivers on the basic levels of entertainment and then some.
What keeps “Berlin” from being great, however, is the writing. It’s easy to lose track of the plot, which comes off as confusing and distracting and the lousy script prevents the dialogue from being as witty as it should be.
The fact that the film is able to maintain a consistent level of anxiety to the end and leave an emotional resonance speaks to the talent of Ryoo Seung-wan, who has quietly become one of the country’s best directors, and an A-list cast led by Han Suk-kyu and Ha Jung-woo.
Ryoo opens his film with a chaotic sequence where South Korean agent Jung Jin-soo, played by Han, botches an opportunity to nab his North Korean counterpart Pyo Jong-sung, played by Ha.
Pyo had been executing a weapons trade with Arab arms dealers in a hotel room and looked like a sitting duck before jumpy Mossad agents get involved and force Jung and Pyo into a foot race the South Korean loses for the sake of the plot.
The movie then lapses into an unfriendly instruction course on the life stories of the characters and the entangled relationships between them. After that is set and done, Ryoo rewards the audience for their patience with a real punch.
The movie comes alive when Pyo is betrayed by fellow North Korean agent Dong Myung-soo, a role brilliantly played by Ryoo Seung-bum, the brother of the director. The tightly-packed and smartly-placed action scenes that follow do indeed represent Korean cinema at its best. But this is a movie where the sum could feel lesser than the parts.
In sticking to an understated portrayal of Pyo, a magnet for bad luck, quandaries and bullets, Ha once again proves himself as the most bankable star in the Korean film industry. No one better delivers the fugitive-type role better than Ha, who seems to be among the few actors who can breathe a layer of complexity into the shortest of lines.
His streak of above-average films in past years —“The Chaser” (2008), “The Yellow Sea” (2010) and “Nameless Gangster” (2012) — is impressive and one hopes that his best is yet to come.
The three male actors in the movie are superb, but the real surprise for many could be Jun Ji-hyun, whose career had drifted into the shallows before last year’s breakthrough with “The Thieves.”
She deftly handles the role of Ryun Jung-hee, a North Korean interpreter and wife of Pyo, who is suspected by the Pyongyang authorities of treason. With her life under threat, Ryun begins to doubt Pyo’s loyalty toward her and suspects he is trying to turn her in and gain political power in exchange. Of course, it’s Dong who is really after her.
Ryoo, a martial arts devotee whose past credentials include “Crying Fist” (2005), “Dachimawa Lee” (2008) and “The Unjust” (2010) has never produced a more polished action movie. He may or may not be able to work with this collection of acting talent again.
However, it’s regrettable that all they could manage to do is provide undeserved credibility to a script that manages to be preposterous and un-ambitious at the same time.
The background to the plot is predictable as it is familiar.
North Korea — surprise — continues to be unstable after the death of former leader Kim Jong-il and this has North Korean agents fighting furiously in a competition to advance in the country’s new power structure, whatever that might be. And South Korean agents simply just can’t keep themselves out of the way. Berlin was also an obvious venue as the historical site of German reunification.
In the end, the movie comes off like some sort of hero movie, although it’s questionable whether that is what Ryoo intended. He clearly sympathizes with the characters and how they are unjustly pressured to put their duties and loyalties to the state before their personal lives. But the loose script allows words and the course of action to contradict each other too frequently.
The movie hints at a sequel as Pyo decides to walk into North Korea of his own free will and heads to Vladivostok. If there’s indeed another “Berlin” in the pipeline, Ryoo will know where the area for improvement is.