“Shiri” proves that Korean filmmakers are as technically proficient as those anywhere in the world. Kang Je-Gyu’s action romance looks great, with some sequences that are visually quite stunning. The problem is its story, which is little more than an assemblage of cliches drawn from Hollywood and Hong Kong that, in the end, is almost risible. Though the picture adroitly employs all the virtuoso technique of modern action flicks, in narrative terms it’s positively moldy.
“Shiri”–the title refers to a fish that we’re told is a symbol of the yearning for the reunification of the Korean peninsula, and indeed the picture is stocked, so to speak, with reference to all things fishy–begins as an old-fashioned secret agent yarn. It centers on a absurdly efficient North Korean female operative called Hee (Kim Yun-Jin) who’s being tracked, along with her cohorts, by the South Korean intelligence service at a moment of political thaw between the long- belligerent states. The pursuer we get to know best is Ryu (Han Suk Kyu), whose duty draws his fiancé Hyun (Kim Yun Jin), a pet shop proprietor who specializes in aquariums, into danger as well. Ryu also has the obligatory world-weary partner, Lee (Song Kang-Ho). Hee and her compatriots best Lee and Ryu in a succession of encounters involving a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a newfangled liquid bomb, but gradually the secret of her identity is uncovered and a big “Black Sunday” finale plays out in a packed soccer stadium where the presidents of both Koreas are in attendance.
There are elements of “Shiri” that come off reasonably well. The picture has a glossy, attractive appearance, and Kang Je-Gyu stages some of the chases dextrously. There’s also a snippet from a Korean version of “Guys and Dolls” that’s rather amusing–it’s fun to hear even a bit of the title tune sung in so foreign a language. But as things proceed the cliches become so abundant that one almost feels he’s watching a badly-dubbed rerun; the certitude that the hero’s best pal will meet his maker, for example, is evident from the first moment one sees him, and the clumsy comic-relief colleague is truly a pain. (There’s also a “Face/Off” twist toward the close that’s extremely contrived.) To keep the plot running episode after episode, moreover, the script is forced to make the heroes look supremely inept. Ryu is described as his department’s best agent, but in reality he seems like a total doofus; indeed, the entire South Korean intelligence apparatus is portrayed pretty much as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight (quite literally: they regularly bombard their foes with automatic weapons fire but rarely hit anything but the scenery, and in one scene set in a theatre the director actually has to cut away from the action to avoid explaining how a group of assassins escape an ambush they’ve prepared). And though it may be true that the narrative has a serious purpose–it’s said that the idea originated from a desire to depict the pain of the continued national separation–that’s no excuse for halting the action at what’s meant to be a tense standoff at the close so that the hero can debate the villain interminably on the politics of peninsular reunification. (The two prattle on at such length that the periodic cuts to a gauge showing the countdown to doom become positively absurd.) “Do you know the pain the war has caused the country?” one of them asks the other–by which time the audience isn’t feeling so hot, either. “Shiri” may have started out with good intentions, but in its completed state it’s just a poor imitation of a Hong Kong action flick. And as such it’s put in the shade by a recent Thai effort, “Bangkok Dangerous.”
There’s a moment in the subtitles that deserves memorializing. At one point the intelligence chief announces after identifying a suspect that he’s going to “put up a montage of Park all over town.” Now there’s an interesting prospect.