What I like about movies from Korea, is their ability to make you invest into characters, while simultaneously keeping them mysterious or at least in grey areas as well. After an arms smuggling deal goes bad, North Korean agent Pyo Jong Sung finds himself and his wife, translator Ryeon Jung-hee under a cloud of suspicion and tries to uncover the real culprit. North and South Korean, Russian, U.S., Israeli, and Arab agents are everywhere, to the point where it seems it’s only slightly more likely to see a German citizen on the streets of Berlin than if the action took place in Seoul. Once all of these players are introduced, the movie does a good job of sorting them all out, as Jong Sung investigates who is responsible. There are a number of very effective action sequences throughout the film to keep things moving. The relationship between Jong Sung and Jung-hee is central to to plot. For an action movie, the characters are very well presented. But fans expecting a repeat of Jun Ji Hyun’s delightfully over-the-top performance in The Thieves will be disappointed. Her role as Jung- hee in The Berlin File rarely goes beyond that of a typical damsel in distress.
The characters are well drawn, particularly the two North Korean agents and their South Korean equivalent. They are convincing and strong anchors to base this story on. In fact seeing as this is a South Korean film it’s nice to note that the hero of the piece is a North Korean agent. This adds an unusual subversion of expectations. The location for the film too has been specifically chosen. Berlin is the one European city that historically most clearly mirrors Korea. It was divided East and West like Korea is North and South, with one half capitalist the other communist. The old East Germany was very similar to North Korea. But irrespective of the politics, it’s just a good idea in general to use a modern European city as the setting for an Asian action flick. It gives the whole thing a more original feel. Seeing the German location used as the battleground for intense Korean action sequences works really well. Those scenes are well worth waiting for. They are a combination of martial arts, gun fights and chases. They are all extremely well controlled and exciting.
To be honest, I found the overall story to be entertaining, but as others point out, somewhat convoluted for the fairly frenetic pace of the action and movements. It was quite clear that the film-makers were going for a kind of John le Carre flavour to the distinctly Korean mix of action and drama, even going so far as to actually use a copy of his novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a prop in a scene (a German copy, which was a nice touch). Ha Jeong-woo and Ryu Seung-beom were ideal as North Korean fixers, the former having previously played a stoic action-based North Korean in the brutal 2010 film The Yellow Sea. Their tale of corrupted brotherhood might even have been an allegory of generational changes in the DPRK, just as Han Seok- kyu’s conflicts with his own organization might just symbolize such tumult in South Korea.
There is absolutely nothing offered in terms of spy films or action cinema. It’s just a very melodramatic, over the top Korean action film that emulates the style of Bourne films with narrative tropes of Asian cinema. For Asian action film junkies and fans of the actors it’s a worthwhile distraction. This simple (though not evident) law of nature is not declared explicitly, but in many South-Korean films it’s pronounced rather distinctly. And this is what makes them always sensible, yet often unexpected. Be prepared to invest sufficient attention into an arduous story of North- and South-Korean secret service affairs.