Missions, murders and conspiracies: the basic recipe for almost all of Seung-wan Ryoo’s films. His ninth feature, The Berlin File (2013), borrows a similarly seething framework to Dachimawa Lee (2008), all about spies and the threat of North Korea. This is certainly timely given Western paranoia over a nuclear Pyongyang, but Ryoo’s new piece is a failed attempt at disentangling the complex web of corruption and browbeating politics cooked up between the military and government. Plotting this film is basically folly, as it clings to the idea that the action sequences will be so mesmerising you won’t need to know what’s going on.
Pyo (Jung-woo Ha), a North Korean secret agent, is sent undercover to expose an illegal arms deal but is soon caught up in a North-South espionage nightmare, where traitors defect and then re-defect, cameras film other cameras and Pyo is left wondering who has betrayed him: his wife or his political overlords. The Germans are also somehow involved, and the Israelis, and the Russians, and obviously the Americans, in what must be some kind of cross-governmental game of Cluedo. It almost sounds good on paper but this ridiculously overwritten, overacted and ultimately oversold spy thriller is a comedy of errors.
The Berlin File pulls out every genre cliché it can muster, from the arrogant CIA agent who meddles with Korean affairs to the faux-countdown borrowed from the likes of 24. For almost no apparent reason, Pyo has 48 hours to decode an insanely cryptic message (naturally hidden inside his wife’s bra), which will save his life. To pull off its grossly convoluted narrative, Ryoo’s latest completely entrusts its own stream-of-consciousness to deliver action-packed yet profound storylines, pulling away at countless threads until the whole thing unravels in front of us.
The combat scenes remedy a couple of the problems, taking lead from the blow-for-blow fights in The Bourne Identity (2002) which are genuinely tense and fraught with peril. They arrive as relief in a film which zip-lines between explosions and pensive dialogue. But this is basically a two-hour film made up of trailers. Characters either talk in vacuous mantras or complete riddles; at one point there’s a nod towards John le Carré which would probably enrage him should he ever see the film. Don’t do it John.
Yet without these scenes, The Berlin File would have literally nothing to discuss. Ryoo simply bangs on about how everyone is suspicious of everyone, North Korea is ultimately a nation of fraudsters and turncoats and that the government will protect its interests at all costs. There is no real sense of conspiracy or doom here, just a collection of half-baked stories that loosely tie into an elusive, projected authoritarianism.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.