Based on the 1923 bombing of the police headquarters during the Japanese occupation of Korea; The Age of Shadows follows Japanese collaborator Lee Jung-Chool as he attempts to root out the resistance movement. However, the death of his former classmate plants some seeds of uncertainty in his commitment to the occupying force.
Right off the bat, I should point out that I know absolutely nothing about Korean history. I expect that the standard ‘based on real events’ rule of thumb (assume it only loosely follows the actual events) applies here. Nonetheless, if you want confirmation of historical veracity, this isn’t the review for you.
However, my lack of background knowledge of the subject matter meant it was entirely up to the quality of the movie to keep my attention. So it says very good things about The Age of Shadows that my attention didn’t waver. In fact, because the movie is subtitled, I ended up putting down the video game I was playing while watching to avoid missing what was going on.
The movie opens with resistance member Kim Jan-ok being sold out while attempting to raise funds for his movement. At first, as he flees from the enormous amount of police officers, I was a little sceptical about the film. This was due to the Stormtrooper level aim of the police officers as Kim handily fights his way out. Then reality ensues as he is hit by several bullets, losing a toe in the process, and ends up surrounded. Lee attempts to reason with his former classmate into surrendering peacefully only for Kim to kill himself rather than sell out the resistance.
Regardless of historical accuracy, the film doesn’t shy away from showing a conflict between occupying force and resistance for what it is; a vicious struggle between armed forces. The Japanese officials we see are unpleasant and don’t care how many Koreans die as long as order and control are maintained. Meanwhile, the plot revolves around the resistance’s efforts to bomb a public building and the possibility of a traitor in their ranks has them pointing guns at each other more than once.
The core of the movie is not its action sequences, which are placed sparingly throughout the runtime for maximum effect, but the powerful emotional interactions between Lee and the characters on both sides. On the one hand, he has the absolute trust of his Japanese commanders and much to gain or lose depending on the level of his success against the resistance. On the other hand, the death of Kim and his continuing interactions with the resistance members stirs his long dormant guilt at siding with the Japanese over his own people. The Age of Shadows is such a powerful piece of storytelling because it doesn’t make the mistake of painting Lee’s conflict as being between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. Instead, Lee must choose between his own well-being and his love for his nation.
This powerful story is framed with excellent direction and cinematography; it’s always nice to see a movie whose merits are spread evenly about the entire production.
I don’t know if watching this movie would help me with a Korean history exam, but I do know that I enjoyed watching it more than any movie I’ve seen recently except Wonder Woman. The Age of Shadows has also really sparked my interest in watching more foreign, non-Hollywood, movies which tell you all you need to know.
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Song Kang-Ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-Min and Shingo Tsurumi
Running Time: 135 Mins
Release Date: 10th July 2017