Let me begin this article by commenting on how happy I am that this movie did something with an empty handgun other than the “bang bang click click look at gun throw away.” I mean, why would you do that? First of all, guns cost money, and you can always reload it later if you get the chance. Second, even empty it’s a solid chunk of metal (unless it’s a Glock, I suppose) that is just waiting to be creatively applied in other ways. During this film’s climactic showdown, North Korean spies Pyo and Dong spend some time taking pot shots at one another and, upon exhausting their supply of bullets, they both take to using their guns as sort of brass knuckles-meet-bludgeons. Gentlemen, I salute your ingenuity. And now, on to the review…
For my money, there is no national cinema more adept than South Korea at executing formula — and even cliche — with a slick polish and boundless enthusiasm that makes the sometimes overly commercial aspects — the style over substance — inconsequential. At least for me. South Korean cinema may be about flashiness; it may be commercial; it may be all about making a buck; but as long as the end results continue to entertain me as much as they do, I have no problem with this. Most of my favorite Asian films of the past several years have come from South Korea: Nameless Gangster, Man from Nowhere, Secret Reunion, Yellow Sea, City of Violence, Old Boy. And from the earlier days (provided you define earlier as the early to mid 2000s), you have films like Shiri, JSA, Nowhere to Hide — that is a damn fine bunch of movies, right there. Sure, there were some clunkers from time to time — Natural City, Tube, Reincarnation of Little Match Girl — but by and large South Korean action and thriller movies leave me with, at the very worst, a big, dumb, delighted grin on my face. This one turned out to be no different.
The Berlin File (a title that makes me think instantly of one of my favorite spy movies, Funeral in Berlin starring Michael Caine as the endlessly put-upon Harry Palmer) was a mega-hit in South Korea. As the title might suggest it’s a Cold War era thriller — only the era is now and the Cold War is between North and South Korea. South Korea has made so many of these North-versus-South potboilers that they probably could produce themselves at this point. But so far, I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve seen, and there’s no reason they can’t go to that well as many times as The United States went to the Ruskies well or India served up another “our enemies to the North” thriller. The difference is that the Koreans have a closer relationship with one another than the Americans and Soviets. And while India and Pakistan are actually two nations whose divisions arose in very much the same was as the division between North and South Korea (carved up by other countries), Indian cinema just doesn’t do nuance very well, so their Pakistani villains are usually moustache-twirling “mwa ha ha!” types. In South Korean cinema, at least in the movies I’ve seen, North Korea is frequently an opponent but rarely one without sympathetic mitigation or understandable motivation. And in the case of The Berlin File, a North Korean even gets to be the good guy. Well, as good a guy as can be in a movie without any real good guys.
The movie hits the ground running with ice-cold North Korean spy Pyo (Ha Jung-Woo, the nearly indestructible protagonist of The Yellow Sea) involved in an arms deal in Berlin that rapidly goes south (but not South Korea). The South Koreans, led by disillusioned veteran Jeong (Shiri‘s Han Suk-kyu), were looking to make a bust they hoped might lead them to a secret bank account that was kept by recently departed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. They also find themselves interested in the sudden appearance of this North Korean spy about whom they have no information. Unfortunately, their operation is interrupted when Mossad agents show up looking to bust the Arab terrorist to whom Pyo is selling North Korean weapons. And this is the least convoluted of the film’s many espionage twists. Mossad has no interest in Pyo and lets him slip away, but the South Koreans quickly catch up with him for the first of the film’s many fantastic chase-and-fight scenes. Pyo escapes, but one of Jeong’s men is seriously injured, causing the embittered agent to swear he will track down and deal with this mysterious North Korean “ghost.”
Pyo, meanwhile, fears that his loyalty is being called into question when he learns another agent, Dong (Ryoo Seung-beom, Die Bad, Arahan, Bloody Tie — and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s little brother) is being dispatched to check on him. But it soon turns out it isn’t Pyo who is under suspicion; it’s his wife (Gianna Jun, My Sassy Girl and the live action Blood: The Last Vampire). Or is it not her at all, and someone else? Or is it really Pyo after all? And how do the Americans, Russians, jihadists, and Mossad all fit into the picture? The ensuing tangle of crosses and double crosses that play out across the Berlin cityscape makes for a confused plot that can barely keep control of itself and never manages to clearly tie everything together (something may have been lost in translation). Ultimately though, the conspiracy between the two Koreas is decipherable enough to get you through the day, and the details of the rest are fine in their sketchy form. After all, it’s all a framework whose primary purpose is to give director Ryoo Seung-wan the room to do what he does best: mayhem.
And as he has done in the past, he delivers — not quite to the gleefully over-the-top degree he did with City of Violence, but close enough. Highlights include a bone-crunching apartment fight between Pyo and a group of North Korean killers who think he’s a traitor; and the aforementioned finale in which Pyo and Jeong form an uneasy alliance and storm a remote cabin in which Dong’s gang and a group of jihadists are holding Pyo’s wife hostage. Where the action in City of Violence was consciously cartoonish and outrageous, The Berlin File reels things in a bit more. Not realistic, mind you, but as realistic as, say, the action in the Jason Bourne movies. Ryoo’s camera strikes a pretty good balance between the modern rapid-edit style and a more reserved approach that actually allows you to see the action — and feel it. Good lord, can you feel it. This movie loves nothing so much as it loves slamming people’s backs into hard objects. Rocks, steel pipes, desk corners, metal railing — you name it, and chances are someone is getting slammed back first onto it. It’s brutal, and yet still the movie’s most painful moment comes when Pyo goes to work on an attacker with a naught but a simple desk stapler.
The screenplay does nothing unexpected, which is par for the South Korean film course. Despite the many twists and turns, nothing that happens in The Berlin File is a surprise. Of course Pyo is going to find out his wife is pregnant. Of course Dong is going to be up to something sneaky. And of course Jeong and Pyo will end up with grudging respect and a need to put their differences aside so they can team up to take out the bad guys. As I intimated at the beginning of this article, South Korean cinema is all about delivering a fantastic execution of a formulaic plot. That’s exactly what this movie does. If you are looking for shocks, if you are looking for something you haven’t ever seen before, well you won’t find it here. But if you are happy with what you expect from slick spy thrillers and want to see those expectations satisfied with skill and excitement, The Berlin File has you covered.
Part of it has to do with the director’s expert pacing, but much of it has to do with the performances by the three leads and the complexity allowed for…well, two of them. Ryoo Seung-beom is great as Dong, but he plays a pretty typical “uppity young bad-ass with a weird sense of humor.” Ha Jung-Woo represents the South Korean film’s willingness to invest North Korean characters with something a bit more honorable and interesting than the usual Cold War style villain gets. He is the good guy in this film, a man deeply committed to his country who finds himself betrayed not by his own ideals, or even his own government, but by a small group of men looking to exploit the paranoia around the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un for their own gain. Similarly, Han Suk-kyu’s South Korean operative is a man who is endlessly stymied by slimy politicians, incompetent superiors, and backstabbing co-workers who are motivated not by patriotism or the job, but by simple office politics. Together, Pyo and Jeong are two men who illustrate that north or south, both sides suffer from greedy opportunists who are willing to let people die if it means getting what they want. Neither character is anything unique in this genre, but the actors make them seem fresh even though they aren’t.
Han Suk-kyu was my introduction to Korean cinema, as one-half of the cop duo in Shiri, the first Korean action film I ever saw (still love that one). It’s a little hard to believe it’s been so long since that movie and that now he’s playing “tired old veteran” roles, but there he is and he brings a convincing world-weariness to the role. The only misstep is that the film demands a lot of English language dialogue from him. While he delivers it OK (better than Michael Wong or Daniel Wu — and they’re actual English speakers!), it suffers from the awkward attempts at cursing that often plague foreign films working in the English language.
Ha Jung-Woo I’ve known only since last year when I saw him in Yellow Sea, but he’s an impressive actor who handles drama and action with equal skill. And just as he was in Yellow Sea, he seems nearly indestructible in this movie. Throw him off a roof, through a skylight, and into electrical wires — eh, it’s all good. Shoot him in the leg and the belly and the shoulder — eh, he’ll just walk it off. Lost in the mix is poor Gianna Jun, who is a good actor but doesn’t have much to do in this movie other than the usual “run and eventually get captured.” The English language cast is better than usual. Pasquale Aleardi as a Mossad agent and Numan Acar as the leader of a terrorist cell are both fine — probably because they are actual actors instead of the inexperienced drunks and transients Hong Kong and Japanese films seem to favor when they need non-Asian actors. As Jeong’s CIA buddy, John Keogh does a really weird Boston accent. Maybe that’s his real accent, I don’t know. He suffers a little bit more than the others because he has to engage in banter and cursing that is hampered by the same slightly off rhythm in the language.
Although it offers nothing surprising and no innovations, The Berlin File does offer a fast-paced and engaging espionage tale done extremely well. Good acting, a complex (if sometimes convoluted) plot, considered interaction between North and South Korea, and of course a whole lot of back-breaking fights, chases, and shoot-outs. It’s both a throw-back to 80s style spy thrillers and a great example of the Bourne/Daniel Craig Bond style slick, modern spy thriller. While it doesn’t have the human drama of a Lives of Others, it also doesn’t let its characters smother under the action setpieces. That it takes the time to convince they are worth investing emotion in makes the action even more thrilling. I was thoroughly pleased with The Berlin File, and I remain thoroughly pleased with just about everything I’ve seen from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Hell, I’d like this movie just because they don’t throw their empty guns away. Luckily, it gave me a lot more than that.