Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Berlin File (2013)

Despite the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany in 1990, the formerly divided city of Berlin retains a sort of "spy mystique" that makes it a natural setting for espionage thrillers for many countries. So while it might not be the first thought for a cloak-and-dagger tale about a North Korean agent, Ryoo Seung-wan's The Berlin File fits the location just fine.

North Korean Pyo Jong-seong is in the middle of an arms deal with Russians and Middle Eastern terrorists that goes bad. He escapes but none of the evidence he finds leads him to any kind of firm trail to those who set him up. South Korean Jung Jin-soo pursues Pyo, but also uncovers a mare's nest of intelligence agencies with interests in the broken deal and can't figure out if Pyo is his quarry or some kind of double agent. When Pyo learns that his wife, translator Ryun Jung-hee, is the target of a Pyongyang hunt for a mole, he may find out that his enemies are the only people he can trust.

Ryoo's spy story has the proper amount of backstabbing, covert motives and skullduggery, mixed with scenes of high-tension violence and confrontation. His Berlin is bleak and washed-out, fitting in with the closed-off lives led by two of his protagonists, Pyo and Ryun. The actors playing them, Ha Jung-woo and Jun Ji-Hyun, display the blank affect you'd associate with two people married at government order who work in service to one of the most cult-like states in the world. Since feelings can't always be directed or controlled, they have learned to show none, even towards each other. Only when they wake up to their potential danger do they wake up to their feelings for each other.

Han Suk-kyu as the South Korean Jung Jin-soo is the most colorful character in the movie, as much cowboy cop as government agent even though his agency has its own rigid rules and lines he's supposed to stay within.

The spy shenanigans that drive the plot wind up a little too twisty for full satisfaction, leading to an answer that seems both complicated and inadequate at the same time. And Ryoo's obvious desire for a thoughtful action picture with flair struggles in the gray Berlin palette he's chosen to paint with -- it frames Pyo and Ryun well initially but becomes too limiting the more it moves along. Those limitations aside, though, The Berlin File delivers on its promise of a taut spy thriller with as much weight in its characters and story as in its cloak-and-dagger set pieces.

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