The Age of Shadows takes place in the 1920s, back when Korea was in Japanese control. Korean chief-of-police Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) is a former member of the resistance, now fully cooperating with the Japanese. He is given the task of infiltrating the resistance to try and prevent a plot to smuggle explosives from China into Seoul. To this end, he befriends merchant Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose business is critical to the resistance. Jung-chool finds himself in a very precarious situation, the officer having to play both sides in a dangerous game where any mistake could mean lead to torture or death.
This film takes on the appearance of your average prestige historical drama, but it quickly reveals itself to be something quite different. Its opening sequence is a thrilling mess of a chase, with dozens of Japanese soldiers jumping gaps on tiled Korean roofs while in pursuit of a suspect. Moments later, a character is pulling off his big toe, which was just hit by a bullet. And the film only gets more tense and daring as it goes on. The movie is probably a few chapters too long, the story losing steam in the later parts. But there are plenty of thrills to be had along the way.
One of the most interesting things about this story is that so much of it is about the ostensible heroes failing. They may be the good guys, but their success in any given scene is never a guarantee. Their enemies are too powerful, and crucially, much more heartless than they are. And so this film progresses not through an accumulation of victories, but through a series of failures from which the heroes narrowly escape. The tension rarely dissipates, because the heroes are never out of danger. They're failing forward, losing bits and pieces of themselves even as they get closer to their eventual goals.
The film makes all manner of bold narrative choices along the way. This is a spy movie, and those tend to be built on elaborate reversals to be revealed at the very end. But this narrative hardly ever withholds anything from the audience. When they are twists, they are deployed almost immediately, forcing the characters to deal with the implications right away. It makes for much more exciting cinema. The film goes on for a bit too long, the final sections feeling not quite having the same tension and immediacy as the other portions, but the thrills more or less hold up.
Kim Jee-woon remains one of the most exciting filmmakers around. This is a story of inner conflict that is constantly being externalized. The tension becomes visualized through explosive gunfights and truly horrific depictions of violence. Though the movie has a much more conventional look than the rest of the director's oeuvre, his restless camera gives the movie a jittery visual personality. Song Kang-ho's weary presence is perfect for the character, and Gong Yoo brings a lot of charm to a role that needs it.
The Age of Shadows feels a little shaggy by the end, and all the time spent inside this world and this story hardly reveals anything profound. But it is a bracing piece of popcorn entertainment. Don't let the historical context fool you: this is just a crazy spy action film done in costume. It is action packed and violent and often rapidly paced. And director And while working in that realm, it's difficult to think of anyone as inventive behind the camera as director Kim Jee-woon. It feels like there's more that this film could do, but what it already does is entirely watchable.