In a season that has seen two of South Korea’s top directors—Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand) and Park Chan-wook (Stoker)—make their American debuts, their fellow action specialist Ryoo Seung-wan (Crying Fist, The Unjust) has instead decamped for Germany for this formulaic but solid Cold War–style spy thriller, with North Korea pinch-hitting for the Soviet Union. The Berlin File opens with a botched arms deal between various Russian, Arab, and NK heavies that results in intelligence operative Pyo Jong-seong (the steely Ha Jung-woo) on the run and framed as a defector. Is another rogue Pyongyang agent (Ryoo Seung-bum) trying to shake up the Berlin foreign office for his own purposes—or merely to get his hands on a $4 billion bank account formerly belonging to Kim Jong-il? Decked out with enough red herrings to feed the People’s Army for a year, The Berlin File keeps narrative coherence far down on a priority list that privileges expertly choreographed hand-to-hand combat, hair-raising stunt work (including one spectacular high fall slowed by a string of Rube Goldberg complications), and such familiar genre accoutrements as secret rooms hidden behind bookshelves, shiny metallic attaché cases, and pens concealing fast-acting vials of poison. The enjoyably analog antics end with one character boarding a train bound for Vladivostok, but judging from the evidence, it’s Hollywood where
we can expect to see Ryoo Seung-wan appear before long.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2013