The Cold War is alive and well in the spy thriller “The Berlin File” (베를린), the latest film from action maestro Ryoo Seung-wan (“Crying Fist,” “The City of Violence,” “The Unjust”), which imagines the formerly divided city of Berlin as the setting of complicated machinations between still-divided North and South Korea. Despite its contemporary setting and the presence of modern-day technology, “The Berlin File” retains a bracingly old-school vibe, drawing inspiration from Cold War-era spy novels from the 1960’s (a John Le Carré novel appears as cheeky acknowledgement) as well as 1970’s New Hollywood films such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Conversation.” Initially, it may seem as if one may require the sort of vast databases frequently accessed in the film to keep track of its large population of characters, as well as its rather convoluted plot. However, if you don’t let yourself get bogged down in trying to keep track of every single narrative thread, and keep your focus on the principal characters (in other words, the big Korean stars), you can enjoy and revel in the fast-paced and visually exciting spectacle Ryoo offers us here.
Here’s a somewhat simplified version of the basic situation. We begin with an illegal arms deal going down in a Berlin hotel, involving a Russian broker (Werner Daehn), an Arab jihadist (Tayfun Bademsoy), and North Korean agent Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jeong-woo), a “ghost” who doesn’t show up on any databases. However, there are many other eyes and ears watching and listening: North Korean agents including Pyo’s superior Ambassador Ri (Lee Gyeong-yeong) at the North Korean embassy in Berlin; and South Korean agents spearheaded by rabid anti-communist field agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu). When Jin-soo decides to raid the meeting, a chaotic shootout and chase ensues, revealing the presence of a Mossad agent (Pasquale Aleardi) who is also on the scene. Jin-soo briefly confronts Pyo by gunpoint, but Pyo manages to escape him. Jin-soo is raked over the coals by his boss, who threatens to shut down their operation, which involves tracking down a secret $4 billion stash of North Korean money transferred to a European bank after the death of Kim Jong-il.
Meanwhile, on the North Korean side, Pyo is berated by Ambassador Ri over the botched arms deal, and informs him that Pyongyang is sending over another agent, Dong Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum), as a probable replacement. Myung-soo, who turns out to be a ruthless assassin as well as a gleeful torturer, tells Ambassador Ri that there is a leak in the Berlin office, which explains how the South Koreans got wind of the arms deal. Myung-soo implicates Pyo’s wife Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), who works for Ambassador Ri as a translator. Although their relationship is rather strained, with Jung-hee weary of life in Berlin and wishing to return home, Pyo is reluctant to believe these stories of his wife being a traitor. However, he is still compelled to follow her, and his suspicions of her are raised when it appears she is planning to seek political asylum at the US embassy. Meanwhile, Jin-soo doggedly pursues Pyo with the help of a CIA agent (John Keogh) stationed in Berlin. However, when it turns out that it is in fact Ambassador Ri who is seeking asylum at the embassy, all is thrown into very dangerous chaos, and Pyo and Jung-hee are forced to go on the run, chased by both North and South Koreans, as well as any number of spies and terrorists who are after them also.
Even my Cliffs’ Notes précis of the plot don’t take into account the Borges-like forking paths of other character developments and narrative strands, all of which paint Berlin as a teeming spies’ nest of conflicting loyalties, shootouts, explosions and good old-fashioned fisticuffs. Although there has been much critical complaint over the extremely convoluted nature of its narrative, this serves the interesting dramatic purpose of putting the viewer in a similar mindset to its characters, who have to navigate a confusing muddle of uncertainty as to what exactly is happening to them and where their loyalties and allegiances should lie. Whether this is an intentional directorial strategy, or simply a side effect of the film’s admittedly over-complicated plotting, is anyone’s guess.
However, putting the plot to one side, Ryoo Seung-wan offers myriad cinematic genre pleasures in “The Berlin File” that barrel past its flaws and render it a superior example of action filmmaking, which Ryoo has afforded us throughout his career. In his first film to be shot mostly outside of Korea (some studio sets in Korea were used), Ryoo delves headfirst into this new environment, cannily making use of iconic Berlin locations for his typically well-executed set pieces. On both the large scale and the small scale, Ryoo once again proves himself a master of action spectacle. A sequence involving Pyo and Jung-hee escaping from assassins who invade their apartment, with its Rube Goldberg intricacies, is a major highlight. Ryoo’s collaborators serve him well: Choi Yong-hwan’s cinematography and Chun Soo-a’s production design highlight the steely blue and gray of the Berlin locations, presenting spying as a dirty, dangerous business. The fight choreography of Ryoo’s regular collaborator Jung Doo-hong is, as always, exciting to watch and elegantly executed. The sharp editing by siblings Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum, making frequent use of split screen, keep things humming along at a brisk pace.
“The Berlin File” is not simply a technical showcase, however. The performances that exist among the shootouts and car chases are, to a person, quite compelling and sometimes surprisingly emotionally resonant. The four principal cast members add much personality to what could easily be flat stock characters. Han Suk-kyu, returning to the screen after a three-year absence, convincingly portrays a rather anachronistic hard-line anti-communist (“I don’t even make left turns at intersections!”) who must learn to soften his stance when he comes to realize that human beings are more than just their professed ideologies. (Han’s presence here, not incidentally, recalls his role in the 1999 North vs. South Korea blockbuster “Shiri.”) Ryoo Seung-bum, the director’s brother and frequent star, has great fun chewing the scenery as a ruthless assassin and master manipulator. However, the two standouts in the cast, and the characters we can most readily sympathize with, are Ha Jung-woo and Gianna Jun as the North Korean couple. Ha lends the haunted intensity he brings to many of his roles to his character who struggles to make sense of the shifting sands of geopolitical and personal loyalties he must contend with. Jun subsumes her usual glamour to serve as the true emotional center of this piece, as someone who wishes for a normal existence away from spying and serving the motherland; her eventual fate lends a poignant note to the outsized action spectacle.
The one stumbling block, a function of the film’s international flavor, and one that unfortunately somewhat compromises the fine performances therein, is the awkwardly handled English dialog. Most of the actors here are hampered by not being native English speakers, as well as the fact that the dialog is not particularly well-written; Han’s dialog is especially hard to understand. However, this is a typical problem of Korean films (and many other Asian films, for that matter), and my feeling is, barring some serious language training for the actors (and on the other hand, some acting training for token native English speakers), one really has to grade on a curve when it comes to this sort of thing, and not be too hard on the films for this reason.
Notwithstanding its flaws, “The Berlin File” more than fits the bill for anyone looking for a Hollywood alternative who’s not willing to sit through a slow-moving art film. And considering that the conclusion blatantly sets things up for a sequel, there may be more to come. I, for one, would eagerly welcome it.
“The Berlin File” is now playing in select theaters around the country. In the New York area, it is playing at the AMC Empire and the AMC Bay Terrace in New York City, and the AMC Ridgefield Park in New Jersey. For locations and other info, visit the film’s website.