Review: Shiri (1999)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

The reunification of the two Koreas is obviously something of great concern in South Korea, and Shiri drives this fact home. But don’t mistake me: this is not a dry political drama, or a slice of propaganda. This one is a compelling actioner that will have you clenching every muscle you possess, and maybe some of those on the person sitting next to you.

The plot is a simple one, dealing with double agents from North Korea and a dastardly plan to blow stuff up. Fair enough, and nothing new so far. But the treatment, giving as it does a window into the situation of South and North Korea, lifts the result into a new league. I found that the film improves on a second viewing, as I missed some of the subtleties that gave texture the first time around.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film uses the talents of three of Korea’s hottest actors, and works them hard. Choi Min Shik, in particular, as the leader of the Northern team, pulls out all the stops including the Vox Dei and the Vox Truly Hard Man, and won himself an award for his performance. His impassioned rant in a crucial scene, following his steely-eyed automatic brutality in earlier scenes, gives a frightening insight into what can drive people to behave as they do.

One flaw was what I considered to be excessive use of wibbly-wobbly camerawork, which makes me feel queasy and not at all inclined to pay attention. But the twisting and turning of the plot outweighs the wibbling and wobbling of the camera, and overall there’s much more here than just chase ’em and shoot ’em.

There’s one aspect of this movie that might escape most of us, but which probably contributed at least in part to its huge box office success in South Korea. Anyone living outside of Korea probably doesn’t appreciate how deeply the North-South rift is felt, and how painful the decades-long separation of the peoples can be. So the film is named after a fish that lives in rivers both North and South, since fish don’t recognise boundaries. The Korean people also live North and South, but are always aware that their nation is divided: one people, two countries. If you bear that in mind, you might see the film, and indeed the world, in a whole new light.

8.5 small fish out of 10.
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