“People shouldn’t live among rats.” So says resistance fighter Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon) at the climax of a blistering, terrifically choreographed prologue in Kim Jee-woon’s mercurial, labyrinthine historical thriller The Age of Shadows. Here is a film where allegiances, ulterior motives and loyalties are as transient and alluring as the moonlight which shimmers on black leather uniforms and across glistening roof tiles. Under the night sky, Jang-ok takes desperate flight from innumerable pursuers after his location is divulged to authorities by an unknown informant.
Cornered, injured and out of luck he delivers this defiant opening gambit to Police Bureau captain Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho), the latter an embodiment of Korean collaboration and subservience to the Japanese regime. Occurring mid-way into the 35-year occupation – which ran from 1910 to the end of the Second World War – The Age of Shadows becomes a gripping, at times brutally violent, game of cat and mouse where who is chasing whom is ever-shifting and where both sides are willing to bare fiercely sharp teeth and claws to achieve their ends. The resistance strive for acts of rebellion in the name of independence; the Japanese seek to maintain their vice-like grip on the subdued nation.
Is Captain Lee a turncoat through and through? Time will tell. And what role does antiques dealer Kim Woo-Jin (Yoo Gong) play? The film is tense and atmospheric from its first frames and though the action is a little slow to build a head of steam, when other members of the cell are gunned down upon the orders of blood-lusting, power-hungry Hashimoto (Eom Tae-goo) – allegedly Lee’s subordinate – the pacing picks up considerably and the survivors are forced to take refuge in Shanghai from Seoul.
As is so often the case in spy dramas there is a swift and frequent exchange of telegrams, phone calls and files passed from hand to hand and figures watching figures watching figures. Director Kim handles the layering of this knife-edge paranoia with aplomb and ably negotiates the key issue at hand: namely whether Captain Lee will toe the line of government servant or rekindle his belief in the freedom of his motherland. “To which history will you add your name?” asks network leader – and public enemy number one – Jung Chae-San (Lee Byung-hun).
The crowning achievement in The Age of Shadows comes in an almost unbearably tense train sequence, with the network transporting explosives back to Seoul with a view to blowing up the Japanese police headquarters. A stand-off between the three main players is expertly framed and performed and it is from this point forward that the brutality of the occupying forces becomes clear. Yet there are a few further twists in the tale that corkscrew Kim’s film to its gripping conclusion.