Jong-seong (Ha Jeong-woo) is a North Korean agent, decorated as a ‘Hero of the Republic’, who is working undercover for his Government in Berlin. When negotiations for an arms deal go awry as a result of the intervention of both South Korean and Mossad operatives, Jong-seong and his superiors come to the undeniable conclusion that there is a leak within their ranks. Jong-seong’s wife’s (a North Korean interpreter played by Jeon Ji-hyun) repeated protestations that she is unhappy in Berlin and wants to leave combined with her lying about her whereabouts on more than one occasion lead Jong-seong to suspect that she may be the one betraying her country and so he begins to follow her, fully prepared to report her if his fears turn out to be justified.
However, what Jong-seong discovers in the process of his covert investigation - all the while being chased by South Korean agent Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) - is far beyond what he could have imagined, leaving him with a stark choice between humanity and political loyalty. The arrival from North Korea of operative Myeong-soo (Ryoo Seung-beom) sets the clock ticking yet quicker for Jong-seong; increasingly threatening a showdown between the two men with Jong-seong as an enemy of the state...
Over the years, tales of espionage, political intrigue and subterfuge have been fairly prevalent in Korean cinema; the pitting of North and South Korean operatives and/or spies against each other deftly serving to underline the ongoing tensions between the two countries while ensuring narrative topicality, in the process. Korean writers and filmmakers have regularly used such stories to contrast North Korea's regime with the political and governmental system of the South - both in an overall sense and in relation to individuals within each - and, as such, there are numerous examples of South Korean espionage thrillers detailing initially loyal (often fanatically so) North Korean operatives ultimately being brought face-to-face with a stark choice between their country's expectations and demands and their own needs and desires; their search for humanity, if you will, not only setting them in opposition to the ideals of North Korea itself but also making them an enemy of the state.
Add to that the fact that film narratives have on more than one occasion also featured an uneasy temporary alliance between North and South - again governmental, individual or both - and the resultant opportunities for layered social commentary are not just opened and facilitated but are virtually requisite.
All of which brings me to The Berlin File, but while a cursory glance at its fulfilling of the above criteria may lead you to assume that this is just yet another example, let's not forget this is a film by Ryoo Seung-wan - a director known for using intricate narratives within incredibly complex storylines and about whom the phrase "more of the same" should never be thought, let alone said.
The opening credits of The Berlin File are accompanied by a visual montage showing North Korean operative Jong-seong moving through the streets of Berlin to his apartment to tend his wounds; filmed in black and white using body-mounted cameras and repeatedly intercut with fast paced political imagery from both the East and West. Instantly, the international flavour and broad scope of the story are resolutely stated without a single word needing to be said and, without further ado, the first post-credit scene takes us three hours back in time:
As Jong-seong attempts to negotiate a weapons deal with a Russian arms broker and a member of the Anti-Imperialist Arab League, he, and they, are completely unaware that they are being watched and eavesdropped upon (separately) by both South Korean and Mossad agents and thus, within just a few minutes of The Berlin File's running time, all the major governmental organisations at play have been clearly referenced allowing subsequent narrative intricacies within each to be far more easily focused on without needless extended exposition. Sure, in a story as involved as this further narrative explanations are indeed required and given but they are wisely kept succinct enough to feel more natural throughout than would otherwise have been the case.
Aside from (or perhaps I should say in addition to) The Berlin File being a high-octane thriller, the crux of the underlying themes and commentary lay in Jong-seong’s psychological journey, with his aforementioned search for humanity; his realisation of the importance of moral rights and wrongs; and his need for self-preservation (as well as the survival of his loved ones) set starkly and increasingly against his country’s authoritarian ideals. Within this, director Ryoo Seung-wan deftly contrasts North with South by repeatedly using specific interactions and dialogue between agents on each side and their colleagues/opposite numbers - for example, South Korean agent Jin-soo repeatedly arguing with his superior about the chosen plan of action juxtaposed with North Korean operative Myeong-soo categorically stating that disagreeing with the Party line is tantamount to calling the Government incompetent - and by doing so director Ryoo not only successfully references what is acceptable and/or tolerated (or not) on each side of the fence but also speaks of freedom and even democracy itself.
As if that weren’t enough, the depiction of Myeong-soo as a man for whom his loyalty to North Korea outstrips everything else is layered with the implication that in carrying out the demands of his country he is serving his own needs and desires just as much as Jong-seong; the only difference being that humanity and moral and right vs. wrong play no part in his Party sanctioned actions.
Ryoo Seung-wan is frankly a master at creating multi-layered works containing an utter myriad of plot twists and turns even in films where the overarching themes are fairly straightforward but in the case of The Berlin File that statement hardly scratches the surface of proceedings.
For here, Ryoo Seung-wan clearly revels in playing with his audience - using his seemingly innate ability to lead viewers exactly where he chooses whenever he sees fit - and, as such, on several occasions throughout The Berlin File many will likely be convinced that they've figured out what's to come only to subsequently realise that was exactly what they were supposed to think.
Not only that, but in hindsight it becomes abundantly clear that in each instance pointers to the true state of play were present prior to viewers being taken on a tangent, serving to add an almost perfect "I should have seen that" element to proceedings.
Ultimately, it is the conclusion of The Berlin File and the narrative 'destinations' of several character arcs that can be fairly accurately predicted without too much difficulty but this culmination is no less gripping in any respect as a result of that fact. It could even be said that those 'destinations' are so classic in Korean political thriller, as well as melodrama, terms as to be almost necessary and, let's face it, the journey to them is virtually as important to both the narrative itself and its underlying themes.
Cinematically, The Berlin File is exquisite throughout with Ryoo-seung-wan’s direction and camerawork perfectly realising the pulse-pounding nature of the narrative. The overall pace is brisk but in spite of the numerous character arcs and sub-plots within the complex and intricate story, it never appears rushed nor drags in any way. In fact, though The Berlin File is another film of two-plus-hours duration, it feels exactly as long as it needs to be and remains utterly gripping throughout.
The highly choreographed action sequences and explosive CGI effects are equally as accomplished being used only when necessary and kept succinct enough to be universally thrilling while never detracting from what the film is trying to say as a whole. Fans of Ryoo Seung-wan’s work will be in their element throughout The Berlin File and the film ultimately stands as yet another example of the director’s incredible talent.
The names making up the main cast of The Berlin File could almost have been taken from a Who’s Who of Korean cinema past and present and I’d almost argue that a better cast would have been a near-impossible task to find; both individually and as an ensemble:
Han Suk-kyu (as South Korean agent Jin-soo) is certainly no stranger to playing this type of role and he does so here with aplomb; his portrayal being easily as accomplished as we’ve come to expect from him over the years.
With a variety of roles to his credit from hard-hitting thrillers to far more gentle dramas, Ha Jeong-woo throws himself heart and soul into his portrayal of Jong-seong successfully providing the many, and sometimes opposing, traits of his character to the extent that as we follow his journey, we feel that we are almost accompanying a fully-fledged human being rather than simply watching a character from a distance. Not only that, but Jong-seong’s interactions and battles with Myeong-soo are exemplary to the nth degree; close to the strongest you’re likely to see in any film of this ilk.
And speaking of the character of Myeong-soo, Ryoo Seung-beom is simply one of the best Korean actors, period, and while I could spend a protracted period of time listing his almost endless talents and attributes I feel it really is unnecessary to do so. For he is perhaps the pinnacle of any film’s cast wish list and his portrayal of ‘smiling assassin’ Myeong-soo in The Berlin File is so jaw-dropping that any further description would likely fail to do his performance justice.
Finally, Jeon Ji-hyun (as Jong-seong’s beautiful wife, Jeong-hee) brings a noticeable vulnerability to her role and it’s great to see her give a performance as nuanced as those of her early career. Having made a foray into US cinema a few years ago that was less successful that it might have been (starring in the live-action film Blood: The Last Vampire), Jeon Ji-hyun has subsequently managed to finally re-secure her place as one Korea’s leading ladies - with her recent role in The Thieves and now The Berlin File, among others – something she has largely been attempting to do since Daisy in 2006; and I for one am incredibly pleased that she has.
Cast: Ha Jeong-woo, Han Suk-kyu, Ryoo Seung-beom, Jeon Ji-hyun
‘The Berlin File’ is at once a tale of political intrigue and a dissection of contrasting North and South Korean attitudes to humanity, morals and freedom all wrapped up in a high-octane, pulse-pounding thriller and while the ultimate narrative destination can largely be predicted without too much difficulty, in this case the journey there is equally as important, if not more so.
'The Berlin File' is not yet available on DVD or Blu-ray but it will be screened as part of the Terrcotta Far East Film Festival taking place in London, UK, from June 6th-15th 2013. Full details can be found, and tickets booked, at: http://terracottafestival.com/festival-films/berlin-file/
I would sincerely like to thank Terracotta Distribution for providing me with a screener of 'The Berlin File' for the purposes of this review.
And finally, the official trailer (with English subtitles) for 'The Berlin File':