The Berlin File (베를린)
2013, South Korea
A North Korean ‘ghost’ agent, famed in his home country as the ultimate patriot, finds himself embroiled in a scandal involving his wife, a translator at the North Korean embassy and other high ranking government officials. A traitor has been identified, but can we believe the intel? All the while the movements of all concerned are being closely surveyed by the South Koreans, with help from the CIA.
I love a good thriller. Give me a few guys in suits, running around cities with some guns trying to find something out and I go all gooey, and we have had some wonderfully gripping spy thrillers in recent years, from Bond to Bourne to the diamond in the crown: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. We really have been spoilt for choice and the Koreans have been giving it a fair go. A few years ago they made the massively popular ‘Iris’ television show which produced a film, another series and another film, and now they have made ‘The Berlin File’. It has so much promise: man of the moment Ha Jung-woo, the massively acclaimed Han Suk-kyu (basically Ha jung-woo fifteen years ago), a beautiful and famous leading lady (Jeon Ji-hyun) and a director with a proven track record, working again with his brother (Ryu Seung-beom) which most of the time seems to yield results (keep an eye open for ‘Crying Fist’, a great little film the brothers made a few years ago).
So why isn’t it any good?
What the plot really revolves around is a North Korean spy being cut loose and how he deals with the following events. If the director had followed this plot tightly it would have been a great little thriller. But he feels the need to fill the film with innumerable plot twists and U-turns which render much of the film incoherent. No matter how much it wants to be, Bourne it aint.
Being a fan of the cast I must say that it is exciting to see them outside of Korea, flexing their acting muscles in a European city but their talent is wasted. The film is roughly 70% Korean with the rest either in German and English. Now I can’t confess to being fluent in German but I know my English and clearly the actors don’t, and the screenwriter certainly doesn’t. They are given lines that Brando would have problems delivering, so when they try to act in English it is awkward and unbelievable. Remember that these characters are trained, agents working in Europe, and the fact their English is so strained sinks the films authenticity, though to be fair even the English speaking cast couldn’t pull it off either so what chance did they have?
Another aspect that I found hard to stomach is the constant thumping, bumping and walloping Ha Jung-woo’s characters goes through without even as much as a grimace. At one point after a lengthy fight in which he is persistently punched in the face he falls 100 feet through a window, caught by wires hanging from the rafters and vigorously smashed into the walls of the room. Any one of these would break a bone, concuss you or indeed lead to your demise. Not for our intrepid communist, who shakes it off and makes do with a touch of iodine from the wife. This is before he is shot twice which doesn’t even produce as much as a limp.
The film does have little peaks among the troughs. Ryu Seung-beom stands out as a menacing North Korean agent and the final act has a lively, well edited action scene but it is an ultimate thumbs down.