A plot which involves a dodgy international arms deal, a secret multibillion dollar bank account belonging to the extended family of Kim Jong-il and a power struggle in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s succession. A list of characters which includes operatives from the CIA, Mossad, and both North and South Korean security agencies, plus would-be high-profile defectors. A cast which includes Ha Jeong-woo as an indestructible North Korean agent, Jeon Ji-hyun as his put-upon wife, the versatile actor Ryu Seung-beom and the veteran Han Suk-kyu. And as you might expect from Ryu Seung-wan, there’s plenty of action. It’s hardly a surprise that the film went down well at the Korean box office.1
But for a western audience, what is there to draw you in? Well, all of the above really. But how different is the film from countless Hollywood spy actioners which have become guilty pleasures? Yes it’s nice to see Jeon Ji-hyun on screen again, but it’s equally nice to see your favourite western actress in your average Hollywood action thriller. Yes, it’s painfully enjoyable to see the bone-crunching fights and falls that Ha Jung-woo sustains, just as one winces at some of Daniel Craig’s stunts in James Bond movies. But is there enough that’s interesting in The Berlin File to make one return to it? Not really.
I tend to watch Korean films because they offer something different from the mainstream Hollywood fare, and The Berlin File doesn’t do this. In fact, as I come to put the finishing touches on this article over a month since I started it, I am struggling to remember that much about the film itself other than what I have written above. I certainly can’t remember what I felt when I was watching it, which suggests I wasn’t feeling very much.
The Berlin File is certainly a high quality film. But it’s not one to engender fondness like some of Ryu’s previous output such as Dachimawa Lee or Die Bad. One might even want to return to the gruesome City of Violence for the relentless final showdown. But Berlin File is one to watch once to see what everyone else has been talking about, and then move on to something more interesting.
The Berlin File screened as part of the Terracotta Film Festival on 8 June, and will screen later this year as part of the KCC’s Year of the 4 Actors feature on Ha Jung-woo
Ryu Seung-wan (류승완) The Berlin File (베를린, 2013)
- After a strong opening, the film eventually scored over 7 million box office admissions in South Korea – though at number 17 in the all-time list this is well short of The Host at 13 million.