Korean director Kang Je-Kyu’s 1999 film Shiri is an action-packed, Hollywood style romance-thriller, with the conflict between North and South Korea in the center. The film follows two South Korean secret agents, Ryu and Lee who are on a mission to track down North Korean sniper Hee. While a group of renegade North Korean soldiers, from the same special ops unit at Hee, have stolen a powerful explosive in order to spark a conflict between the two Koreas in hopes that another war will result in reunification of the two countries.
The film is packed with gunfights, fasted paced action scenes, and literally ticking time-bombs, yet it also displays moments of comedy and romance between Ryu and his fiancé Hyun, who owns a fish shop. Over the course of the film, it is revealed that Hyun is not who Ryu thinks she is, and the two storylines begin to merge together in a flurry of chase scenes and bullets. The film is heavy—to the point of being excessive–on lengthy gunfight scenes. Compared to other movies such as those of Hong Kong director John Woo, the scenes attempt to take on a sense of realism through the handheld camera shots and pacing of the fights, as characters pause to duck behind tables. This realism is broken, however, by the seemingly endless streams of bullets flowing from the enemy’s guns and the seeming invincibility of the protagonists (unless their death or injury proves an important plot point).
Following the typical Hollywood blockbuster style, Shiri is at times overbearing in its use of redundancy and the urgency of the ever-ticking time bombs and deadlines. Yet the film also possesses several traits that set it apart from Western blockbusters. One such trait is the role of the North-South conflict of the movie. By using these historical events and themes, Shiri is able to reach with a wide audience within Korea. The film’s title comes from the name of a type of fish that is native to rivers in North and South Korea. Unlike the characters in the movie, the shiri fish swims freely across the borders of the two countries, unaware of its location.
Through its use of romance, action and violence, Shiri is often labeled as one of the first “Korean Blockbusters.” Rooted in the historical and political tensions of modern-day Korea, the film is without a doubt Korean, but I believe that the stylistic elements of the film that fall under the label of “blockbuster” are overdone. Although the gunfights and time bombs provide a sense of action and urgency to the film, they are extended and repeated to the extent that they begin to bore the viewer.