'The Age Of Shadows' Is An Exciting, Somewhat Murky Return For Kim Jee-Woon [Fantastic Fest Review]

Almost every Kim Jee-woon film is a blasted battlefield where style and substance have declared war on one another. Most of the time, the two reach a stalemate – films like The Good, The Bad, The Weird and I Saw the Devil are energetic masterpieces that often feel as if they're teetering on the edge of collapse, films whose expansive running times are justified by the sheer amount of things happening on the screen. It may take awhile, but even The Last Stand (Kim's first and, so far, last foray into Hollywood) taps into his innate desire to tear up everything on the screen with gleeful, gory debauchery. It's his default mode and it has served him well.

The Age of Shadows is a quite the departure for the director, who has returned to South Korea and has returned with a slick historical spy epic that finds his most identifiable traits being moved to the back burner, for better and worse.

The truth is that The Age of Shadows will have many viewers at a disadvantage. From the opening action sequence all the way through the stirring (and overlong) conclusion, the film assumes that everyone watching is familiar with the Japanese occupation of Korea in the years before World War II, a subject that, if we're going to be completely honest, isn't covered in western education. So it is sometimes difficult to discern if the often muddled storytelling in The Age of Shadows is the result of certain choices being made by the filmmakers or simply a side effect of Kim directing a film that was always intended to play at its best within the borders of his homeland.

Blending history and fiction, The Age of Shadows is set in the late 1920s and offers a glimpse into the violent conflict between the Korean resistance cells fighting for their nation's independence and the Japanese military looking to quash this uprising before it gains more steam. Caught in the middle is Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho), a Korean-born man who has risen through the ranks of the Japanese Police Bureau and finds himself tasked with hunting down the leaders of the resistance. And if you predict that Lee will find himself torn between his duties to his foreign overlords and a slowly growing sense of patriotic obligation to the men and women fighting to free his home, then congratulations! You've seen a movie before.

Lee is a compelling character and Song gets us invested with him early on through the sheer magnetism of his performance. He's a scoundrel, a treacherous viper willing to play both sides against each other if it means him coming out ahead in the end, and he's the ideal tour guide through this violent landscape where no one is to be trusted and everyone has an ulterior motive.

And because the world of this film is so dangerous and because everyone speaks in half-truths in every conversation and because everyone who appears on screen knows more than they are letting on in any given conversation, The Age of Shadows can get murky. Some of this is by design, especially in a thrilling sequence set on board a train where Lee finds himself attempting to work with a team of Japanese investigators and the Korean resistance members they are attempting to track down. At its best, the murkiness and opaque storytelling is frustrating in the best ways, forcing the audience to play detective alongside the characters.

Unfortunately, the film often feels just plain muddled. Large stretches of The Age of Shadows are convoluted hard to follow and many vital characters are only given the briefest possible introductions before they are removed from the chess board. This could be a film that benefits from a second viewing, where prior knowledge of who everyone is and what they want will allow the viewer to simply focus on the mechanics of the complex plot. Kim has made a spy movie that is as obtuse and confusing to the audience as it is to those trapped in its web.

And this brings us back to Kim's war of style versus substance, because this film is at its best when the filmmaker goes back to his old tricks for particular stretches. While the meat of the story can be difficult to parse, the action set pieces are not. As he has proven multiple times before, Kim is one of South Korea's finest action directors, which puts him on the short list of the finest action directors in the world. When the chatter stops and the guns come out, The Age of Shadows sings. Each shootout is fueled by desperation and terror, never allowing us to forget that each member of the resistance is outnumbered and outgunned. The above-mentioned train sequence is a miniature masterpiece lurking within a large film. Taking up most of the second act, it's easy to imagine it extended to a brisk 90 minutes and actually being its own intense, claustrophobic little movie. It just so happens to be jammed in the middle of an overlong 140-minute experience.

The Age of Shadows peaks early (with the conclusion of the train sequence, if we're being honest) and the final stretch never quite captures the rhythm of what came before. As it lumbers toward its conclusion, the storytelling grows more convoluted even as Kim lets his patriotism fly loudly and proudly. This is a movie that feels tremendous admiration for the real men and women who fought and died in this conflict and Kim's direction wears its heart on its sleeve. Will a foreigner feel the same emotional resonance? That's the key question here. I ultimately liked The Age of Shadows in spite of itself because it's often thrilling and handsomely produced and filled with actors doing strong work, but I'd be lying if I said I was ever moved or felt like I was every fully following the machinations of the story.

Does my own cultural ignorance give me a disadvantage? Maybe. Possibly. But action is an international language and The Age of Shadows certainly more than delivers on that front.

/Film Rating: 7.0 out of 10