Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri is widely thought of as South Korea’s big break both in domestic and international movie markets, effectively leading the way for Korean Cinema as we know it today. It’s remarkable though, if somewhat fitting, how much the movie’s identity owes to the hard-boiled American and Hong Kong action thrillers that preceded it. Considered by many an “homage” to those same films, I would almost call it a downright aping of the genre, and not one that feels terribly fresh. Still, while I feel I’ve seen Shiri countless times before, it’s hard not to acknowledge the pedigree of Kang’s filmmaking or how clearly the movie’s financial success can be tied to how heavily, albeit effectively, it meshes genre flick awareness and broad engagement of the region’s identity politics.
The politics in Shiri speak to a Korean identity that is largely fractured in nature: a division between North and South, between democracy and communism, between love and duty, between man and woman, between fish and… other fish. Consequently, it’s hard to discuss how Shiri works without spoiling its key plot points, so be sure to watch Shiri first if you do not wish for me (or, ahem, the IMDb Plot synopsis) to give everything away. Taking place in 1998, the movie essentially frames the North/South Korean divide against the eventual discovery by Seoul Special Agent Ryu* (Han Suk-yu) that his girlfriend of a year, Hyun (Kim Yun-jin, of LOST fame), is a disguised sleeper agent for a radical pro-unification faction in North Korea called the 8th Special Forces.
What’s more, Hyun’s real identity is “Hee,” who happens to be a long-lost sniper whom Ryu and his partner Agent Lee (Song Kang-ho) have spent years trying to hunt down. Hyun’s true self, and her resurgence as an active sniper, eventually get revealed after the 8th Special Forces leader Park (Choi Min-sik, about whom you’ll be hearing a lot in this Marathon) infiltrates Seoul and steals a volatile, fluid-based weapon with enough explosive power to take out an entire city. The characters in the movie continually refer to the weapon as “CTX,” the acronym for a full name I believe roughly translates in English to “Liquid Death Star.”
As Ryu and Lee come closer to hunting down Park and the deadly CTX, Hyun’s role in the sinister plot becomes increasingly clear to them, much to her South Korean lover’s heartbreak. The chase leads all involved parties to a giant soccer stadium, where Park intends to detonate the CTX in the middle of a much-hyped match between North and South – a match attended by both countries’ leaders, and widely intended as a catalyst for the reconciliation of both sides.
If it’s not clear to you how Kang structures his espionage thriller around the very real political tensions between both Koreas, you may have neglected to turn on the subtitles. Perhaps by nature of the genre itself – a genre not typically celebrated, admittedly, as a fosterer of nuance – Shiri’s political engagement with the notion of Korean Reunification comes off as more than a little heavy-handed, even to this American ethnocentrist. Certainly the film opens itself up to accusations of South Korean nationalism – given the radical, terroristic approach Park his 8th Special take to ensuring a unified Korea. “The Goal is to start a war, a revolution,” Park proclaims at one point, blaming the clunky, politics-driven approach for failing North Korean citizens who are “starving in the streets” while drunk teenagers in Seoul are eating “cheeseburgers and Coke.” All Park wants is an end to conflict, and the best way to do so, he believes, is to blow everything up.
Do you notice the neat little trick Kang pulls off here? Basically, he writes for himself the luxurious scenario of making a Communist radical (a dubious authority at best) to mouthpiece every condemnation of South Korea’s capitalistic culture and excesses. But conveniently, such condemnations are undercut further because Park’s motivations are intended to induce audience pity for the forlorn, decrepit citizenry to their North. To be clear, I’m not exactly saying I’m a fan of Communism or North Korea (I happen to love cheeseburgers, and hyper-gauchiste dictatorial regimes are kind of the worst). I merely want to point out how heavily the politics in Shiri, while superficial, nonetheless manage to stimulate a fairly nationalistic sensibility about Korea’s place in the world. Really, it exploits a political climate for entertainment value more than it engages that same climate, which is likely why the film sound so much success domestically and internationally.
Still, what’s wrong with a little insidious, nationalistic glee in your action thrillers from time to time? Indiana Jones has it. Air Force One has it. Top Gun has it. Argo has it. Even a wartime romance like Casablanca has it to an extent. Like every Hollywood flick that inspired it, Shiri embraces the conventions of the genre, and does so with utmost competence. While I can’t say that the tragic arc between Hyun and Ryu particularly moved me, nor can I say Park fully suggests the particularly unsettling villain I know he is capable of (it’s not in the Marathon, but watch I Saw the Devil sometime). But Kang demonstrates notable skill in how he crafts his action sequences; they are tightly edited, effortless in their camera movement and convey a terrific sense of space. Most importantly, Kang knows this genre well enough to pace the film accordingly. The progression of plot in his movie – and the manner in which he conveys information – is efficient and machine-like, including no thoroughly unnecessary scene or pointless character arc. Like a cog in the grinding machine of capitalism, it all works, and the movie supplies plenty of blood to lubricate those cogs.
But of course, that proficiency in the language of the genre makes for some pratfalls. Shiri represents a kind of filmmaking that feels as chemically engineered for mass appeal as a cheeseburger and a Coke. And while cheeseburgers and Coke may be addictive and instantaneously satisfying, there’s nothing about them that ever fully gratifies. Shiri is more a perfection of a movie that’s been told a million times before than it is Kang’s personal reimagining of that same story. His movie does nothing so interesting as to foreshadow the kind of ingenuity Korean cinema would subsequently be empowered to create in the decade following.
But that great filmmaking did follow, and Shiri’s massive success arguably made it easier. So while Shiri is hardly a great film, either in its politics or in its playfulness with genre, the pseudo-scholar in me can’t help but respect its place in history.