Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Age of Shadows (2016) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2020

The Age of Shadows 1The Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) was a painful experience for the people on the Korean peninsula. The colonial authorities imposed their will brutally, even insisting that Koreans adopt Japanese names, though they did build up the country’s industrial and transport infrastructure. That was mainly a matter of Japanese self-interest, of course, especially after the propagation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere from 1931. However, there was an underground resistance movement among nationalist Koreans who dreamed of reasserting Korean independence, despite the daunting Japanese superiority. It is in this context that Kim Jee-woon’s epic action drama The Age of Shadows (in Korean and Japanese, with English sub-titles, available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks) is set, as a small group of insurgents plot a daring attack on key figures in the Japanese colonial establishment. This involves going to Shanghai to fetch explosives, so most of the action in the film — which runs for well over two hours — is set in either Seoul or Shanghai, though the most dramatic section is an extended sequence on board a train travelling between the two. For fans of late 1920s style in fashion and cars, the movie is a visual delight. No expense was spared.

The Age of Shadows 2From an early scene of police and soldiers closing in on a young resistance leader, moving almost balletically across the roofs of a traditional courtyard mansion, onward the tension mounts. The characerisation is vital to the film’s success, the key figure being a Korean police captain working for the Japanese authorities but with a high degree of ambivalence, played by one of Korea’s most celebrated actors. Song Kang-ho (known in the West mainly for being the father of the indigent family in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite). The attractive group of young resistance fighters soon win the audience’s affections, but the realisation that there is a traitor in their midst undermines their solidarity. The odds are stacked against them, so their dedication to the cause is sometimes challenged by the very human desire to survive. The Japanese security forces, behind their elegant facade, are prepared to use the most brutal of methods to crush opposition. The film includes a couple of graphic interrogation sessions which are not for the squeamish, but which underline the harsh reality of the occupation.

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