Sweeping both the domestic box office as well as last year’s biggest awards ceremonies, espionage thriller The Berlin File edged out fellow spy film Covertly, Grandly to take its place as the fifth highest grossing film of 2013 behind films like The Face Reader and Miracle In Cell No. 7, which have been on my to-watch list foreeever. One day.
More impressive than numbers alone is its all-star cast, with leading man Ha Jung-woo taking home an award for best actor at the 49th Baeksang Arts Awards, while the film’s cinematographer went on to win at almost every award show he was nominated in—which is on the rare side as far as awards ceremonies go. It seems to be the exception and not the norm to find a mixture of both great acting and award-worthy camerawork in a blockbuster action epic, but hey, the more the merrier.
All in all it was a good year for this Bourne-esque thriller—and I mean that literally, considering that director Ryu Seung-wan stated his intention to emulate The Bourne Identity movies here. In that endeavor he definitely succeeded, since audiences used to a spy film or twenty will find little here that feels new or unfamiliar. But the quality which makes The Berlin File just this side of unique is its focus—albeit a little too sparingly at times—on that little thing which makes or breaks even the greatest of films: character.
The convoluted blockbuster seems to be a trend stateside as well as abroad these days, and The Berlin File is no exception. The premise is theoretically simple, with a North Korean super spy finding out that he and his wife are being unfairly framed as traitors by a fellow North Korean spy, resulting in their struggle to save themselves and (possibly) clear their name.
Of course there’s more to it, especially when South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, a group of easily misled and vaguely Middle Eastern terrorists on a revenge mission, and the CIA all get involved—though their ties to each other have a tendency to get lost in a plot that veers too close to convoluted as each separate agency pursues their own goals. It takes about one hour of spy vs. spy vs. arms dealer vs. who-are-these-people-again before the plot hones in on what will become the meat and potatoes of its character stew, with the hero and his wife on the run.
As in any movie dealing with the espionage war between North and South Korea, there are politics that come into play, though they’re thankfully brief and simpler than the inter-personal issues going on. Yes, there’s the usual commie-bashing and yes, the eventual partnering of a South Korean spy and a North Korean spy crosses that not-so-figurative political divide—but for what it’s worth it never feels like we’re being pandered to as an audience with the usual North Korea is the worst! propaganda. It’s implicit, but thankfully not explicit. And whether it’s true of real life or not, Movieland North Korea has no shortage of badass spies and insta-death poison pens.
Interestingly enough, the super spy hero of the story isn’t a South Korean, but a North Korean by the name of PYO JONG-SUNG (Ha Jung-woo). Known as a hero in his homeland, he makes for a loyal agent and an even more loyal husband, no matter how estranged he and his wife may seem—even to the point where she claims, “I forgot you’re the hero of the republic before you’re my husband.”
And for the movie’s first half, he is exactly as she says. Jong-sung is fiercely dedicated to his country and whatever it asks of him, even to the point where he starts suspecting his own wife of selling secrets to the South Koreans. When the ambassador of the North’s agency in Berlin is implicated as a defector, Jong-sung goes along with the plans from the higher-ups to torture and eventually kill the man he’s known all this time as a friend. Why? Because all the evidence points to him as being a traitor, and Jong-sung has no reason not to believe.
It’s only when that evidence begins to implicate his wife that Jong-sung shows his true colors and proves his worth as a good and righteous man, as he begins to question the events unfolding around them and eventually learns to disobey if it means protecting the one he loves. Jong-sung’s journey isn’t the newest story ever told, but when played with such complexity by as compelling an actor as Ha Jung-woo is, it becomes a journey more deeply felt.
Jong-sung’s wife, RYUN JUNG-HEE (Jeon Ji-hyun, credited in this film as Gianna Jun), works as a translator for the North Korean embassy. She’s presented as a perpetually unhappy and distant woman, though it’s not hard to understand why, when their ambassador uses her as a prostitute to ply foreign ministers with sexual favors, no matter how much it deadens her insides.
Out of the two of them, it’s Jung-hee who seems most ready to live any other life than the one they’re stuck in, as two silent strangers sitting across from each other at the dinner table. It’s hinted at that they weren’t always this way, but only because of a picture we see of them holding a child, now deceased. The loss of their child is likely the cause of the rift in their marriage, even though her other job seems to be driving a further wedge between them as well—as evidenced by Jong-sung’s suspicion when she finally reveals that she’s pregnant, no matter how much she assures him that the baby is his.
Even to the very end, Jung-hee remains something of a cipher, though her character is given so little to do. Hers is a role that had a lot of potential in the beginning, but as the chase evolves she turns into more of a motivation than a person. Since she’s not the kind of spy her husband is, her role is more of a damsel in distress in need of saving rather than a woman with the will to take charge of her own fate.
And then there’s South Korean agent JUNG JIN-SOO (played by the ever-charismatic Han Suk-kyu), who inadvertently gets caught up in Jong-sung’s struggle while running routine reconnaissance on the North Korean embassy. He’s a bit of a hothead and an outcast at his agency, which considers him something of an old timer far too set in his anti-communist ways. Jin-soo never denies it.
Though he’s the reason the CIA gets involved in Jong-sung’s fight for survival against a fellow comrade, it’s really of little importance. The “international” part of this international spy thriller wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t treated like such an afterthought, especially when the file in the title’s namesake proves to be something that’s barely mentioned and definitely not fully understood.
Long story short, the South Koreans are after a file leading to a multi-million dollar bank account that Kim Jong-il supposedly left behind. Its inclusion doesn’t impact the story other than when it’s used by Jong-sung as a bargaining chip to get Jin-soo to help him save his wife. Up until that point, the two of them had only been meeting in violent encounters. Who doesn’t like an unlikely alliance, anyway?
While the story hints at larger and much more far-reaching issues scoring the political undercurrent which drives each of the separate intelligence agencies, the conflict really comes down to a cold-hearted North Korean assassin, DONG MYUNG-SOO (Ryu Seung-bum), and his surprisingly simple plan to take over the North Korean embassy in Berlin. Why Berlin, you ask? Good question, I say.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s not fun to watch—in fact, the movie seems to thrive most when it hones in on Myung-soo’s plot for personal gain, because it brings the focus to our four main characters as people more than props. Jong-sung isn’t fighting to save his country, he’s fighting to save his wife from a man who’d rather kill them both and belatedly label them as traitors. It makes the ensuing conflict much more personal and relatable, even if it would’ve been nice to have more time to explore the unbreakable bond between Jong-sung and Jung-hee.
Regardless, trust me when I say it’s really not worth it to ponder the exact details of Myung-soo’s plan and how it only makes a tangential amount of sense. I found myself more willing to follow along when all the conflict boiled down to a simple case of a good guy trying to save the girl he loves from the bad guy’s clutches. It’s almost so good at just being that toward the end that I was left wondering why the movie wasted its first half teasing at greater international implications if it was really all going to come down to Jong-sung and Jin-soo teaming up to lay siege to a house in the middle of nowhere.
There’s also a side plot concerning Myung-soo and the band of Middle Eastern spies he manages to round up like personal bodyguards by lying that Jong-sung killed one of their own (when it was really him, obviously), though I’m still left scratching my head when looking back on that plot line. It’s much easier to explain their presence as being expendable human shields for Myung-soo to use so that more bullets can fly more places, especially in the grand finale. Does the reasoning and conclusion to their story matter? Not so much.
To give credit where credit is due, the action scenes were phenomenal and worth the price of admission alone. This is a smartly-shot movie without being a smartly-plotted one, and the strangest aspect of the story is how much it feels like one big tease for another even bigger story that we don’t get to see. In that sense it truly comes off like the first film in a trilogy, and when viewed as a prequel it all makes so much sense—you give the hero a tragic backstory and send him on the run with only his wits and a score to settle, and hint at his ongoing (if not reluctant) alliance with his former political opponent.
The ending feels as deliberately open-ended as the Bourne movies were—though of course we don’t have to do any guesswork as to why that is. While it doesn’t skimp on the payoff, it still comes off feeling a little incomplete, like we missed a step along the way. I’d pin that on the film’s inability to truly grab its audience by the heartstrings, even though that’s something I wouldn’t even have expected from a super-slick, action-heavy romp like this in the first place.
The only reason I started to hope for more was precisely because the plot didn’t remain in the same stratosphere of international espionage where it began. It didn’t leave Jong-sung as a helpless man fighting against the much-bigger system, because the system didn’t take his wife and unborn child hostage—Myung-soo did. Which means the culmination of the story has less to do with anyone’s political leanings and more to do with the bad guy getting his due. The politics never disappear, but they instead form a solid backdrop for the action that unfolds.
If I had one wish for this film, it would’ve been to give the ill-fated lovers more time to connect both with each other and the audience before outside forces drove them apart. We saw Jong-sung’s devotion in his willingness to give up his patriotic duty for his wife, but Jung-hee wasn’t given the same opportunity to key us in to how she truly felt. A little more time spent developing their dysfunctional relationship or showing even a sliver of their backstory would have done wonders. Alas.
Bottom line: Despite disproportionately brilliant performances delivered by its core cast of characters and some truly great action set pieces, The Berlin File wobbles under the weight of an unnecessarily convoluted yet ultimately simplistic plot. Takes an hour to reveal why the first didn’t really matter, but never fails in its duty to entertain. 7/10.
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