Fantastic Fest Review: Age of Shadows

I Saw the Devil director takes on a period spy thriller

Quality espionage thrillers – especially those rooted in patriotism – purposefully convolute, only to be stripped and spun down to a base: a handful of altruistic truths.

Taking on the cinematic tack of a bloodthirsty Steven Spielberg, Age of Shadows is resistance done in maximum pulp. Armed with compelling characters, this punishing and gorgeous big-box Warner Bros. picture – its first go in the Korean market saw it dominating the box office – features I Saw the Devil director Kim Jee-woon rumbling down exceedingly long, winding roads, eventually reaching other truths along the way.

Set in the tumultuous time during the Japanese occupation of Twenties Korea, the opening scene involving an epic gun battle sets up interplay of the cat and mouse, and the mouse disguised as a cat – finely played by lead Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) as ambitious and morally hazy Captain Lee Jung-chool. He’s exchanged his Korean patriotism for the spoils of working with the sadistic Japanese invaders.

Tasked by ruthless Japanese police chief Higashi (Shingo Tsurami), Lee meets and must begin his double-spy mission by following a crafty antique dealer, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), to infiltrate a Korean resistance sect. A fast friendship forms as the film’s linchpin, but from here, the story shifts into an uncle’s retelling of the fantastic events.

The movie’s most interesting (and most problematic) character is Hashimoto, Higashi’s brutal do boy, and trained pit viper. While captivating, talented Korean actor Um Tae-goo plays the Japanese investigator with little nuance, all devil in black. It’s evidence of the film’s core issue – save Lee’s moral topsy-turvy – of the overabundance of characters remaining starched down throughout the film.

As the story’s locations change, from Seoul to Shanghai, and back – via a hellacious and thrilling train ride – the plot’s reduction doesn't boil down into anything concise or clean. In fact, astigmatism develops, with bulging distortion leaning toward punishment, fetish, and sadism. Excellent gunfight scenes, and the director’s stunning images and settings, however, overcome most of the film’s character-specific problems. His superior eye for color and tone are top-notch.

If Age of Shadows could be considered a success, a significant portion of it belongs to Song Kang-ho, who carries the film with a strong emotional range, exploring deep conflicts in choosing between country and self-preservation. The viewer could find himself or herself rooting for his successes, even in the face of the cruelties he occasionally takes part in.

The Age of Shadows screens again Monday, Sept. 26, 1:45pm.

Fantastic Fest 2016 runs Sept. 22-29 at the Alamo South Lamar. Tickets and info at, and follow our ongoing coverage at

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