Who knew? North Korea, despite being the diplomatic Bogeyman of the western world still maintains an embassy in Berlin. Admittedly, now that I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia, it does seem less impressive to have a Korean spy thriller set specifically in Berlin (which I was led to believe was somewhat unique). Nonetheless the city still retains a residual cloak and dagger ambiance from years of the Cold War and films about the subterfuge that once went on in the divided city: an ideal setting for a tale of a country still split in the middle.
The film begins with Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) walking the streets of Berlin tracing his path to a clandestine rendezvous via dead drops. The meeting is with an Arab buyer looking to buy some North Korean weapons already on the radar of a number of other foreign security agencies, including South Korea’s. It is there we meet Jeong Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) a Cold War warrior with a palatable hate of “commies”. The deal predictably goes south and Jin-soo chases Joong-seong, only to be outwitted and outmanoeuvred by the North Korean. Fearing the deal failed because of a mole on their side, Jong-seong begins his investigations, a primary suspect being his wife (Jun Ji-hyun), as he hears of a rival North Korean agent (Ryu Seung-beom) coming to Berlin on some ambiguous housecleaning mission.
South Korean agent Jin-soo seems the most relatable, being so emotional, yet no less competent than central character North Korean agent Jong-seong. Jong-seong instead plays the typical monosyllabic tough guy. Admittedly as a North Korean agent whose job is maintaining everyone’s loyalty and cutting deals with the criminal elements willing to do deals with a rogue state like North Korea, it is perhaps not that surprising that Jong-seong is somewhat of a cypher until the point the inevitable betrayal unfolds and leaves him battered but breathing. Similarly Myeung-soo carries himself with an intimidating menace that equals Jong-seong’s sense of capability, tinged with a ruthlessness that is implied in Jong-seong but never shown.
As the plot unfolds, there is that sense of an inexorable journey to the film’s conclusion. If the film has, up until the point of the unfolding betrayal, failed to lose you in the thrill of the ride, then the imminent partnering with his rival and violent acts of vengeance that follow may not be for you. Nonetheless, for a spy-thriller genre film, The Berlin File ticks all the right boxes. Its plot has its share of turns and betrayals and yet it maintains a straight-forward momentum, driving the narrative forward from action set-piece to action set-piece with impressive stunt work and fight choreography. Like a rollercoaster, whilst you know the fall is coming, you nonetheless enjoy the adrenaline rush when it comes.
The Berlin File is a more than competent spy-thriller that delivers on its action, though the plot and characterisation is thin, particularly if you have any other experience with Korean film. It does not makes the film any less enjoyable though – as long as you walk in with expectations set appropriately.