Apr 9, 2013

Movie Review: The Berlin File (2013)

The Berlin File may be confusing, but it’s also quite a good spy film. (The two have never been mutually exclusive, after all.) It’s a South Korean movie, but it’s set—and filmed—in Berlin. The location is more than just title fodder (in Korea the film is simply titled Berlin), too. The iconic city that played host to so many Communist-East-vs.-Capitalist-West spy movies during the Cold War makes an ideal backdrop for today’s most relevant Communist-vs.-Capitalist struggle, that of the two Koreas. Against such historic spy landmarks as the Brandenburg Gate, a North Korean and South Korean agent (and, true to the genre, quite a lot of other parties) hunt each other in a compelling game of cat and mouse as writer/director Ryu Seung-wan drops plenty of allusions to his Cold War-era forebears, from Bond to Bourne to le Carré to Deighton. (The recent Bourne movies are the most obvious inspirations.)

As the film opens, South Korean spooks monitor a meeting taking place in a Berlin hotel between a Russian arms dealer, an Arab terrorist and a North Korean agent so good he’s not in any database (a “ghost,” as they refer to him). Unsurprisingly, that many bad guys in one room is going to attract the attentions of other supposedly friendly governments as well. Although it’s unclear exactly who is who during the chaotic sequence itself, it eventually becomes clear that the CIA and the Mossad are also interested in this conference, as well as the primary South Korean agent’s support team. With that many lit fuses hovering this powder keg, it’s inevitable that things won’t go as planned. Sure enough, the meeting erupts into chaos, and gunfire, foot chases and hand-to-hand combat ensue. As the North Korean agent, Pyo Jong-Seong (Ha Jung-woo) attempts to escape via the hotel roof, he’s intercepted by South Korean agent Jeong Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu). The two men have enough time to size up one another (the basis of any antagonists-bound-to-work-together framework) before Jin-soo gets the upper hand and makes his getaway.

Jin-soo has a wife at home, Ryeon Jung-hee, who feels neglected. Yet she herself is the pawn of Jin-soo’s boss, the North Korean ambassador. (This “ghost” reports directly to the ambassador.) Her job is to be his translator at a business meeting, but he requires her to go further and seduce a potential German business partner in order to get a market advantage and whatever intel she can pick up. The ambassador’s motives, in turn, are questioned by Pyongyang (or possibly by another faction within the North Korean government), and this casts aspersions on Jung-hee as well. I won’t even go into who’s bugging the meeting and why! It’s all so complicated as to be very hard to follow (even harder via subtitles), and it’s possible that the intricate web doesn’t really make any sense at all, but to me the web itself is more crucial to the success of this sort of spy story than the sense it makes. At any rate, Pyongyang sends a cleaner out to Berlin, Dong Myung-soo (Ryu Seong-beom) (introduced in an exciting fight aboard a train in further accord with genre traditions) to make sense of this situation and eliminate any loose ends. Myung-soo informs Jin-soo that his wife’s loyalty (and, by extension, his own) is in question, forcing him to choose between his wife and his country. Despite being a patriot, Jin-soo finds himself with no choice but to go on the run with Jung-hee, making their escape across Berlin rooftops and amidst much gunfire. If it seems like I’ve given away too much at this point, don’t worry; everything I’ve encapsulated up until now is merely the setup! I recount here it in so much detail because I relished the (possibly unnecessary) complexity.

The purpose of all this setup is to force Jin-soo to go rogue, and eventually team up with his North Korean counterpart, Jong-Seong, forming a classic action movie odd couple. This pairing creates ripples affecting various factions from the South and North alike, along with the Arabs from the beginning and the CIA. The actor playing Jong-Seong’s CIA ally is unfortunately kind of awful. Luckily, his white face is probably enough to make him convincing to Korean audiences for whom his English dialogue is no doubt subtitled anyway, but English speakers are forced to put up with enough bad line readings to wish the filmmakers had bothered to fly in an actual Hollywood character actor for the part. (Surely William Sadler is available for this kind of job?) Spy fans, however, will likely cut him some slack because he uses a le Carré paperback as a way to identify himself to his contacts!

The elaborate spy scenario is, of course, all basically a clotheshorse on which to hang a number of action setpieces, just like in an American movie. When such setpieces take place against a Berlin backdrop, I tend to be satisfied. (It also helps that, with the exception of some dodgy CGI fire, most of them are quite well executed—but that’s almost secondary for me to the locale.) The action is fairly violent, especially in the finale, and there is a particularly brutal torture scene. But even squeamish spy fans will still find plenty to like in The Berlin File. Its themes of divided loyalties and betrayals both personal and professional, along with its gleefully labyrinthine plot, are enough to make you believe it could be a product of the Cold War. And when it comes to spy movies, that’s a very good thing indeed. The Berlin File is a thoroughly entertaining throwback that updates classic themes and a classic setting to suit the very current geopolitical conflicts of today.

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