No Clues. No Leads. No Time.
In 1998, the Korean film industry was doing quite poorly. That year, only two domestic films were on the country's box office top ten list, which was dominated by American blockbusters. The highest grossing domestic film barely made a third of the gross of Titanic. Looking back, these were typical results for Korean films.
Then, in 1999, a motion picture was released that changed everything. Shiri is a political action thriller combining elements of Hong Kong bullet ballets and American action flicks with a distinct Korean flair. Shiri came out of nowhere to beat the Titanic's previous box office record, giving Korean films the ability to compete with big budget imports.
Facts of the Case
Hee (Yoon-jin Kim), a highly trained North Korean assassin, is involved in a number of South Korean murders before disappearing. Six months later, similar murders occur at the same time that samples of a top-secret explosive liquid called CTX are stolen from the South Korean government. Coincidence?
Of course not. Two South Korean agents, Park and Lee (Suk-kyu Han and Kang-ho Song, respectively) begin to track the assassin, hoping she will lead them to the group that stole the CTX. All of this happens during a period of potential unification between the two Koreas, a potential that terrorist bombings could destroy. As the investigation continues, it becomes clear to the two agents that South Korean information is being leaked, and Park and Lee are forced to question each other's loyalty.
From the plot description, Shiri sounds like a typical action thriller. For the most part, that's precisely what it is. The film opens with a sequence in a brutal North Korean training camp, in which trainees are killed off until only the best remain. The rest of the story is just as familiar, packed full of gunfire, explosions, car chases, Mexican stand-offs, and bombs counting down almost to zero. It is clear from the first frame that Shiri is a genre picture, just like dozens of Hollywood films that hit the multiplexes each year. So, how does this small-budget upstart perform so well against the big dogs?
The action scenes, of which there are many, are very effectively directed. An interesting blend of Hong Kong and Hollywood, the shootouts tend to be a tad repetitive, but they are never boring or poorly filmed. The crew makes great use of the locations, keeping things fresh and exciting. It should also be noted that Columbia has released Shiri completely uncut, so the violence has not been toned down for the North American audience, as so often happens with Asian action films. A few of the special effects are a reminder of the film's humble beginnings, but they don't detract from the generally high production values. If judged solely on the action, Shiri would be an entertaining but forgettable action adventure.
Rather than action, however, it is subtle things that make Shiri stand out. The film centers on the idea of duality, and does a good job of setting up characters with two conflicting sides, just as the identity of Korea has become separated and conflicted. The best way this is handled is through a pair of kissing gourami fish that Park's girlfriend gives him to take care of. Though the fish are constantly fighting, they need each other to survive, and as soon as one dies, the other will die as well. This metaphor for North and South Korea keeps cropping up throughout, but never feels heavy-handed or forced.
The performances are the reason these subtle touches in the film work so well. Suk-kyu Han does an excellent job carrying the film, with his natural, laid-back charisma. While Han's Park is involved in many action sequences, he has enough private and personal moments that he is much more than just an action hero. The other performances are equally good. Yoon-jin Kim plays a fully fleshed-out female character that does not get in the way of the plot or need rescuing every 15 minutes. Another stand-out actor is Min-sik Choi, who plays the leader of the North Korean unit—a complex man with deep convictions and a lot of justified anger.
I don't think a North American audience can fully appreciate what it means to live in a country that is split in half politically, as happened to Korea, Vietnam, and Germany after World War II. While Shiri is not a definitive look at this situation, I found that aspect of the film to be fascinating and deeply moving. In the end, I had pity for the North Koreans, even though their situation did not justify their actions. The South Korean filmmakers must surely have been tempted to turn the North Koreans into faceless communists, but their choice to do things differently pays off. At the end of the film, no easy solution is given for the reunification of Korea. There's a sense of hope for the future that will come out of the willingness for each Korea to forgive the past transgressions of the other.
It is these unexpected things—the attention to the characters and the well-thought-out political undertones—that make Shiri a film worth checking out. To make the situation even better, Columbia has delivered the film as part of a satisfying DVD package.
For the most part, the picture quality is quite good. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in an anamorphic transfer. There are few instances of noise and no visible edge enhancement. A few scenes are excessively grainy, but because this is not consistent, I am sure that it's the source that's to blame here, not the transfer by Columbia. Considering that the film was made for a mere $5 million, there is really nothing to complain about.
The sound fares even better. The best way to watch the film is with the excellent Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The dialogue is always clear, the music mixes in nicely, and the action scenes make great use of the surround speakers. If you must watch Shiri dubbed, you'll find an English 5.1 track as well. It is well synched, although many of the dubbed performances are pretty flat. Unfortunately, a great deal of the subtlety and the characters that make Shiri so worthwhile are completely lost in this translation. There is also a French 2.0 track. The disc offers English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
The primary extra is an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, one that's somewhat meatier than many of the press kit documentaries that come with action films. It begins with the usual self-congratulation, but in this case the puffery seems justified, considering what the filmmakers managed to accomplish. The rest of the documentary is a frank look at how they produced the movie, which is worth watching to see the corners that often need to be cut to make a film like this on such a low budget.
The other extras are not that impressive. There are trailers for Shiri, Crimson Rivers, and The Tailor of Panama. The only other extra is the music video for When I Dream, in case you didn't get enough of the song the eight times they play it during the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Very often, I think that they put the wrong kinds of extras on foreign films. Shiri is a great example of this. It would have been useful to see more background information on the political situation in Korea, giving North American audiences some much-needed context. Since this is a breakout film for the Korean industry, a look at some of the other pictures in the Korean new wave would have been welcome as well. While the documentary covered some of this information, it focused far more on the technical side of the moviemaking process.
I have another minor beef with the film's packaging. The front cover art is dominated by a girl in quite scant clothing, with half her head not showing because it runs off the top of the case. This outfit is not featured in the film, and the cover makes Shiri look more like a "girls with guns" flick than a tense political thriller. Many people who would be drawn to the film by its cover art would be disappointed in the film. More importantly, many people who would love the film may be turned off by it.
Shiri is an important film that helped to revitalize the ailing Korean industry. While not enough of the Korean new wave has reached North America yet, this film is worth checking out by anyone who likes action movies or Asian cinema in general. Shiri is a fine movie in its own right, and paved the way for some even greater films that have followed it.
All involved with the making of the film are released to continue making great action entertainment. The court hopes that further efforts will be just as entertaining, but more willing to try something fresh and new. Columbia is congratulated for treating this film with respect, and is instructed to do the same with other Korean films.
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Scales of Justice
• Documentary: The Making of Shiri
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