Shiri. A New Generation in Korean Filmmaking.
Move over, Pierce. Step aside, Arnold. There's a new action hero in town, and his name is Han. Han Suk-Gyu.
In case the name doesn't ring a bell -- Han Suk-Gyu is one of Korea's most popular young actors. He stars as Ryu in the Korean hit movie, Shiri. But Ryu's not your usual secret agent. And Shiri isn't your usual action thriller. Instead, Ryu and Shiri both have heart and soul, and a story that's as much about love, humanity and difficult decisions as it is about action. It's also the first contemporary Korean film to address the issue of North-South conflict and resolution with human reality. It was a huge risk for director Kang Je-Gyu - both personal and professional. The last director to attempt a sympathetic portrait of the North Koreans, Lee Man Hee, was jailed in 1967.
But Kang's gamble paid off. Shiri quickly became the most successful movies in South Korean history. More than one million tickets were sold in its first three weeks of release, making it the Titanic of South Korea. Now, it's coming to America.
"Shiri" opens in 1992, with a gruesome scene of an elite North Korean commando squad honing its assassination skills on human beings. Singled out for her exceptional talents is the very ruthless and beautiful Lee Bang-Hee.
Hee went on to wreak havoc in South Korea, earning credit for taking out her prey quickly and quietly, anywhere and everywhere. She's always managed to elude her South Korean hunters until suddenly - she simply drops out of sight. Now, four years later, Hee's returned - with a vengeance. At first, who or what she's after is a mystery. But just the fact that she's back at work is enough to muster the South Korean intelligence forces into action. Not surprisingly, agents can't find any trace of her. In this case, the agents are Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu) and Lee (Song Kang-Ho), partners and best friends who share a camaraderie both on and off the job.
But there's another layer that sets this action thriller apart. The film weaves in Ryu's personal life, which is not your "love-'em-and-leave-'em" spy stuff. Ryu, we discover, is engaged Hyun (Korean-American actress Kim Yu-jin), who runs a tropical fish store. Her lover has yet to tell her what he does for a living. Director Kang, who also wrote the screenplay, turns this relationship into yet another plot twist.
A movie like this can't exist without some high stakes - and here it comes in the form of a new liquid explosive called CTX. Ryu realizes that Hee must be after it, but infuriatingly, the agents are always one step behind. The CTX is stolen from a government research facility by North Korean guerillas who leave mass carnage in their wake. Bombs of the highly unstable explosive are planted all over the city. A ransom demand is made, and the clock is, of course, ticking.
What it's ticking toward is a game at a soccer stadium in Seoul. Teams from the North and South are set to play, the game a symbol of the first steps toward reconciliation. In attendance, of course, are political leaders of both countries - and the North Korean commandos.
As simple as this scene may sound to American audiences, it is probably the bravest moment for Shiri. For years, North Koreans have been portrayed as inept, fanatical fools. But during a confrontation between Ryu and his enemy, the communist patriot speaks with passion, intelligence -- and pain. Previously, censors would have forbidden a performance like this on screen.
Shiri has its share of special effects, but it depends more on good old-fashioned action and adrenaline. It has lots of chases, guns, explosions, blood, guts and gore, and a high body count. The pacing is good, so much so that the film feels shorter than its 124 minute running time. In fact, from an action point of view, it holds its own with its American counterparts. And at a fraction of the budget.
The film's visual artistry also serves to differentiate it from others in this genre. Its lighting and cinematography produce rich, deep colors that seem to amplify the emotions. And the use of fish tanks, both in Hyun's shop and at the intelligence headquarters adds another layer of atmosphere and intrigue. The screen at times feels like canvas, the unfolding story a painting. Even scenes that involve violence and killing have an artistic touch. And although there's an influence from action director John Woo (Mission: Impossible 2; Face/Off), the style is very much Kang's. It's the combination of all these elements that make you forgive the few lapses in an otherwise fairly well constructed story and enjoy the experience.
With a budget of nearly $5 million, Shiri holds the honor of being the most expensive Korean film made. But that wasn't what made people nervous. It was how the film treated the North Koreans - as real people, with feelings and reasons for what they're doing -- and the topic of reconciliation that made many expect Shiri to flop.
Kang began working on the screenplay in 1997. His primary inspiration didn't come from big budget American blockbusters. It came from the suffering and famine in North Korea. In order to make it work as mass entertainment, Kang re-wrote the screenplay at least a dozen times. Finally, he achieved his goal, turning his political message into an action thriller. He impressed the National Intelligence Service enough to allow him wide access for filming. The NIS even put Kang in touch with several North Korean commandos who had defected to the South, which adds another layer of realism to the film.
Make no mistake. While Shiri addresses a political hot potato, it is, after all is said and done, a good ol' action flick. One that will get the adrenaline going, put you on the edge of your seat, and entertain you. And, if you take away a little more than that, it will be a bonus.
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For more information on Shiri, including production notes and scenes from the film, go to www.shiri-movie.com.
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Published on 8/2/05