Normally, you’d expect a film from someplace like Korea to open on maybe a dozen art-house screens across the United States. If there were any justice, “Shiri” would open on 3000. It doesn’t matter how many film buffs there are. Most of America never watches another nation’s films that are in another language until someone produces an action flick that’s the match of 99% of what’s made on these shores. C’mon, what are the chances your parents have seen a French film other than “Le Femme Nikita”? Currently, Hong Kong is the leader in penetrating the American consciousness, and that was before “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Don’t believe me? Go to a Blockbuster in Minnesota and count how many movies are available in Cantonese, as opposed to Spanish or German.
Well, now it’s South Korea’s turn with “Shiri”. Not only was director Kang Je-Gyu’s masterpiece the biggest hit of 1999 there, but in Hong Kong, too. This isn’t mindless entertainment, either. Much of the film’s weight derives from its depth of political relevance for both North and South Korea. Sadly, post 9/11, it has a great deal to say to this country as well.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. You’re thinking, “stick to the movie web boy. Stop reaching for ‘great social meaning’.” Can’t help it. It’s just there.
For starters, this is a cold-war thriller. Not the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, mind you, but its ongoing, must nastier cousin separating North and South Korea. Civil wars are always bad, and the time that’s passed since the Korean War has been marked by spies, kidnappings, and assassinations known to have been perpetrated by the impoverished, Communist North against it’s wealthy, capitalist sister nation. Most of the last decade has been marked by a thaw in relations and a strong desire for reunification by both parties. The only problem is that each country wants it to occur only on their terms.
The film opens around 10 years in the past in one of the most kick-a*s training sequences ever committed to film anywhere. Through a rather lethal process of elimination, an elite North Korean unit is determining who exactly is their best and fiercest assassin. The winner/survivor is a bad-a*s young woman named Hee. For the next decade, she then cuts a deadly swath across South Korea. For most of that time, it has been the responsibility of an elite team of special agents to find her and stop her. Agents Ryu (Han Suk-Kyu) and Lee (Song Kang-Ho) have been run ragged to the point that they have nightmares about her, though their nemesis does vanish for long periods of time. Unfortunately, on the even of Lee’s marriage to exotic fish store owner Hyun (Kim Yun-Jin), Hee becomes very active, on the cusp of renewed talks between the Koreas. Could she really be taking orders from an extremist rogue unit bent on sabotaging peace talks? Whether political or religious, extremist ideology never seems to take moral responsibility for the innocents caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately Ryu and Lee might learn how close to home tragedy can hit. Gunfights, explosions, and pathos ensue.
Sure, “Shiri” isn’t perfect, but it does perfectly create a moral universe where actions have real consequences without easy resolution. It actually reminds me how I felt the first time I saw John Woo’s work. Here was a real filmmaker and cast with real talent and skill fully committed to telling the best story possible. This wasn’t just another job for the people involved (like nearly every recent American action flick). It’s experiences like this that remind me why I love the movies in the first place.