“Shiri” is a South Korean film released in 1999 from director Kang Je-gyu. This film, which was released immediately after South Korea’s rapid economic growth in the 1990’s, was a direct response to the Hollywood action films that were popularized in the 1980’s. In addition to containing all of the major elements of a Blockbuster action flick (such as superfluous shootouts where the protagonist remains miraculously unharmed), there are distinct elements to it that show it to be Korean at its core. Yu Jong-won (Han Suk-kyu) is a South Korean agent whose current task is to find the infamous North Korean spy Lee Bang-hee (Yunjin Kim) who has already assassinated a number of key South Korean political figures. She is also a member of a rogue North Korean military unit who has determined to reunite North and South Korea by any means necessary. Yu and his partner Lee Jang-gil (Song Kang-ho) must search for the information that will help them discover where Hee is hiding before her organization can carry out its most devastating attack. The rogue North Korean envoy manages to obtain a liquid explosive known as CTX, which at rest is indistinguishable from water. This liquid is extremely dangerous however, and at the right temperatures for the right amount of time can annihilate a large area or city property. The rogue agents intend to use this weapon at a friendly soccer match between the North and South Korean soccer teams, as the major political figures from each country will be in attendance. It quickly becomes a race against time as Yu and Lee search for information about Hee, her commander Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik) and the location of their devastating bombs.
One of the major flaws with this movie is the extent of the gunfights and how frequently they occur. What makes it so ludicrous is that the protagonists Yu and Lee, while they are present at almost every single gunfight in the movie, seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid being hit by bullets. Even during the films more extensive gunfights when bullets are flying at the same level of a blizzard, the major characters are not injured for the majority of the movie (the bullets are so extensive, one would assume that even death by friendly fire would be a huge threat).
The running undertones of the movie help aide the movie in its aim to carry a significant plot. The antagonists, albeit misguided, wish to have the divide between the Koreas healed and become one nation again. There is one other significant appearance of the theme of unity, but it plays an important part in the ending (which I will not reveal). Another admirable theme is the idea of love and loyalty. Throughout the film Yu is attempting to remain as focused on his mission as possible. However he is also concerned for the safety of his fiancé, which is another major subplot throughout the film. Additionally, the antagonists always seem to know what the police force will do next, and the police begin to turn against each other out of suspicion. Their loyalties to each other are tested as each agent attempts to protect their interests and their lives.
Overall the film is obviously heavily influenced by American Blockbuster action films, which might make it seem repetitive and unoriginal to an American viewer. However there are positive qualities to the film that occasionally shine through and help to make the film as engaging as possible. The final scene especially is full of tension an thrills, but many viewers are already so tired of the repetition of stagnant action that they may have already lost interest. This movie is definitely most fit for an audience of action die-hard fans who don’t mind the slight lack of depth to the characters and plot.
Obaltan, or Aimless Bullet, was directed by Yu Hyun-mok and was released in 1960. Yu Hyun-mok directed over 40 movies in his career spanning 39 years, but Aimless Bullet is arguably his most famous and influential work (it has been frequently referred to as ‘the best Korean movie ever made’). This movie was created at a very interesting and pivotal time in Korea’s history. 1960 was a year of severe reform and government transition. The old authoritarian Rhee regime had recently been toppled. During the Rhee government, different industries (particularly the movie industry) were heavily regulated and there was little room for creative freedom. Once the government was overthrown, the sanctions were lifted, allowing Korean filmmakers more freedom to explore their craft. Hardly a year later, a military coup created yet another new government, and the window of artistic freedom closed. In this tiny era of leniency, Aimless Bullet was born. The violent and unstable time of its creation is starkly evident in the movie’s plot. In post-war Korea, the people are struggling to earn a living in a cruel society.
The story centers on the life of Cheol-ho (played by Kim Jin-kyu), a clerk at an accounting office who is working to support his extended family: his pregnant wife, his two children, his brother and sister, and his mother. Each of these characters experiences their own internal personal struggle, which then affects their interaction with each other. Cheol- ho’s wife (Moon Jeong-suk) is extremely pregnant and ill, but still tends to the inhabitants of the house, especially her mother-in-law (Noh Jae-shin) who has become senile and frequently shouts “Let’s go!” as if they are in danger. Cheol-ho’s brother Yeong-ho (Choi Mu-ryong) is an out of work veteran who struggles to come to terms with his changing position with his society. Where he was once a highly respected soldier, he is now unemployed and on the low end of society. His struggle with adjusting to his new position forces him to make decisions and act in a manner that is not considered honorable, as one would expect with a soldier. Cheol-ho’s sister Myung-sook (Seo Ae-ja) is struggling with repercussions from the war as well. Her fiancé, who had become crippled during the war, feels so emasculated that he no longer wishes to marry her. With her family struggling to survive and her love withdrawing from her, Myung-sook becomes a prostitute to provide for her family. Cheol-ho’s children also struggle with their living conditions. The older child, a son, is forced to work as a paperboy in order to provide the family with extra income. The younger child is a daughter who is very perceptive for her age and is aware of the position of her family. She asks her uncle for new shoes and for fun trips. But when he promises her these things, she responds that he is a liar. As Cheol-ho watches his family try to make the best of the situation that they are in, he wonders how they could have avoided this hopeless situation. Didn’t they follow all the rules? Didn’t they do what they were supposed to? Cheol-ho and those around him struggle to answer these questions throughout the film.
The film makes no effort to shy away from any dire situation that the characters are experiencing. There is implied death and despair as the characters struggle to earn a meager living. The bleak environment of these characters actually caused the film to be banned in Korea, with only one copy shipped to the United States to be fitted with English subtitles. What makes this movie so compelling is that it shows that even when someone does the right thing for their entire lives, it might not be enough. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of hardship that drives characters to the edge, and creates characters that feel incredibly human and relatable. They make bad decisions for what they feel will assist in their situation, and you can’t help but hope for them to succeed. In addition to the plot and characters themselves, it contains masterful control and manipulations of camera angles and lighting. The mood created by the dimmer lighting and setting creates a melancholy feel to each of the scenes. This is not a movie that is packed with action, but is a deeply emotional will take hold of your sympathies and grip them right up until the final seconds of the film.