Get ready for an action-packed espionage thriller in which the clandestine representatives of the two parts of Korea, the only remaining country that was divided in the post-WWII period, go at one another in the city that was the focus of so much Cold War intrigue. The Berlin File set attendance records in South Korea after it began screening at 5:00 p.m. this past January 29th, the day before its official release there. South Korean filmmakers Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Choi Dong-hoon (The Thieves), and Lee Joon-ik (The King and the Clown) have each praised it.
The film, which was written and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan (The City of Violence), centers around PYO Jong-seong, a North Korean operative played by Ha Jung-woo (The Yellow Sea; Nameless Gangster). Currently stationed in Berlin, where his wife is a translator for the North Korean ambassador, PYO is called the hero of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, he is not known to the intelligence agencies of South Korea (a.k.a. the Republic of Korea), the United States, Britain, or Israel.
Such an agent is termed a “ghost” and that’s what South Korean intelligence agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) calls him when he’s seen on surveillance cameras at an arms deal taking place in a hotel room. PYO is arranging, via a Russian broker, for the sale of North Korean weapons to a member of an Arab “anti-imperialist” terrorist organization. When a third party interrupts the meeting, all hell breaks loose, and Jung’s quest to capture the resourceful and elusive PYO begins.
The story is further complicated because PYO’s wife, Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), is suspected of treason. Dong Myung-soo, a vicious North Korean agent and son of a powerful political figure, has been sent to deal with the situation. He gives PYO, who begins to have some of his own suspicions about his wife, forty-eight hours to clear her. Ryoo Seung-bum, brother of director Ryoo Seung-wan, plays the role of Dong with truly relentless, sinister menace.
To say that the film has a dense story line is almost an understatement. In addition to the North and South Korean intelligence and diplomatic factions and the Arab terrorists, there is involvement of the U.S. CIA and Israel’s Mossad, suspicions of defection, and a $4 billion fund supposedly squirreled away by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-il before he died. Individuals are often not what they seem to be and are rarely to be trusted. In the world of espionage, after all, duplicity is the name of the game. Still, it’s easy enough to follow along and enjoy the show.
While the film is primarily in Korean, with easy to read subtitles, a fair portion is in English, and it’s here that the film’s main problem crops up. None of the Korean actors seem totally comfortable speaking English. Han Suk-kyu, whom I respect and admire as an actor, has the most difficulty. At times, I wished that there were subtitles for his lines of dialogue in English.
Terrific, stylish, high-adrenaline action scenes frequently punctuate the film. I must give credit here to Jung Doo-hong, who is listed at IMDb as the film’s action coordinator, but who is mysteriously not included in the otherwise extensive list of cast and crew in the press information provided with the screener I received.
So, when all is said and done, I found The Berlin File to be crackin’ good entertainment, a well paced, thriller with an outstanding cast. Highly recommended.
The Berlin File opens nationwide in select U.S. cities on Friday, February 15, 2013. Locations include New York (AMC Empire, AMC Bay Terrace), New Jersey (AMC Ridgefield Park), Philadelphia (AMC Plymouth Meeting), Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Honolulu. For more information about screenings, check out the film’s official website: