- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Films opening include THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, QUEEN OF KATWE and the Korean hit AGE OF SHADOWS.
THE AGE OF SHADOWS (South Korea 2016) ***1/2
Directed by Kim Jee Woon
THE AGE OF SHADOWS (original title SECRET AGENT) marks the second hugely successful patriotic South Korean film released this summer. The first OPERATION CHROMITE was far too serious failing to convince audiences with its plausible plot despite having Liam Neeson as General McArthur in the cast. THE AGE OF SHADOWS is a much better film because it improves in the credibility department.
Asian patriotic films are often a problem with western audiences. For one, westerners are unfamiliar with Asian history such as the Japanese/South Korean conflict in this film. Asian patriotic films are often confusing. This one is a little at the start, and runs a little too long (2 hours and 20 minutes) for its own good.
THE AGE OF SHADOWS thankfully, contains lots of intrigue, like the best of spy movies. The beginning segment has an exciting chase amidst rooftops that ends dramatically with the victim’s big toe being taken off.
If one wishes to complain that audiences may be aloof at the film’s historical content, there is a full torture scene with a red hot iron that will will make anyone wince.
A crucial portion of the plot involves Captain Lee (Song Kang Ho from THE HOST), initially a spy for the Japanese switching to the Korean side. A fair amount of screen time is devoted to this important subplot. Captain Lee is shown with the Resistance Leader drinking a whole barrel of liquor before taken night fishing. Important words are exchanged: “You can’t trust words; you can only trust in deeds…..To which side (country) will you write your history?… etc,” do the trick efficiently.
As for espionage suspense, the train sequence is one of the best that even Hitchcock will be proud off. The Resistance fighters are on board carrying the explosives, followed by the Japanese and Captain Lee who has jet switched sides with the Resistance. As the Resistance changes plans, the new plans are immediately known as there is a rat among them. Included is a standoff that ends with a shoot out in the train carriages with the wind blowing right through the train’s broken windows.
One problem this film might incur is its inherent racism. Besides the Koreans played as good looking (the men) and pretty (the women), the Japanese are portrayed as evil and creepy. The torture segment would be deemed too effective that it might incur more hatred by the Koreans towards the Japanese.
Of all the actors, supporting actor Tae-Goo Um stands out as the super creepy (complete with pencil-thin moustache, crooked nose and over high cheek bones) Japanese agent ordered to bring in the Resistance. His tongue-in-cheek performance perfectly compliments Song’s seriousness as Captain Lee.
The film also benefits from an authentic period atmosphere together with costumes and vintage cars, trains and other props. The landscape of the Korean countryside also adds to the film’s rugged beauty.
THE AGE OF SHADOWS emerges as a film several notches up from OPERATION CHROMITE. Despite a non-white cast, the film should appeal more to western audiences as well.
THE GIRL KING (Sweden/France/Canada/Germany/Finland 2015) ***
Directed by Maki Kaurismaki
Though one might initially shrug at a costume period film on European royalty, this true story of a queen from age 6 might instead, turn heads. THE GIRL KING paints a portrait of the brilliant, extravagant Kristina of Sweden. She fights the conservative forces that are against her ideas to modernize Sweden as she begins her sexual awakening and her love for women. The film is also a Canadian co-production that went on two win two awards at the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival - for Best Actress Malin Buska in the lead role and for the most Popular Canadian First feature.
Maki Kaurismaki (Aki’s older brother) introduces certain controversial segments that question whether they actually happen. One of these is the one in which Descartes is summoned to Queen Kristina’s court to perform an incision from the brain (open surgery) where he removes what he claims is the seat of a man’s soul. It is a gruesome scene where many of the court leave and also one that will make many an audience wince.
Kaurismaki shows the two sides of Queen Kristina - her strong willed side as well as her weak one. The audience will both take her side and the side against her at different points in the film. Her romance with the countess (Canada’s own Sarah Gadon) is displayed less than a love story than Kristina’s weakness leading to her downfall.
Kaurismaki’s GIRL KING is not the first film made on the controversial Queen Kristina.
Besides several stage productions, the most famous was Greta Garbo’s portrayal in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 classic QUEEN CHRISTINA which totally ignored her gay romance with her lady-in-waiting. Given the modernity and freedom of today’s times, THE GIRL KING is the most open in the gay treatment of the material, including a scene with a roll in the bed.
But Kaurismaki’s film surprisingly lacks real drama, despite many dramatic confrontations the best being the one between Kristina and her mother. But most of the film often feels like history lesson, bumped up a bit with emotions that do not affect the audience.
During the Coronation speech when Queen Kristina is opposed after she quotes French philosopher Rene Descartes and imposes peace for the sake of learning, her Counsellor stands up and declares ; “This is Queen Kristina, and when she speaks, she commands!” But she is often opposed by the court and does not always get her way. The end of the film has titles that heard her victory in achieving academia for Sweden, tough how this come about is not explained. The only thing she did was to bring philosopher Descartes to her court.
THE GIRL KING is one of Kaurismaki’s most dramatic features. He as a credit of 35 directorial films. His other films have been slight and mostly forgettable. Though not in any means the best 10 films of the year, THE GIRL KING is a worthy effort and will well be remembered as one of Maki Kaurismaki’s better films.