The time is the nineteen-twenties, and the place is Korea which is under occupation by the Japanese forces who hold the populace in a state of fear lest they get out of line and upset their invaders. However, there is a resistance, and it is armed and willing to use violence to get rid of the occupiers, though they are far outgunned by them, and are largely consisting of loosely-connected cells across the land. Once these resistance fighters are found, they are arrested and tortured to get as much information about their cohorts as possible, but many do not wish to come quietly, becoming martyrs in the process. For Korean police officer Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang-ho), life gets difficult...
That's because he is very much a sympathiser with the resistance when his job dictates he must be loyal to the Japanese, which places him in a position both privileged and tricky; he is not a double agent, but this dichotomy in his public and private faces generated the tension director and co-writer Kim Jee-woon, coming off some impressive successes internationally, was seeking, though while he was the protagonist Song was not necessarily the lead star. Those roles were taken by heartthrobs Lee Byung-Hun and Gong Yoo, who played fellow anti-Japanese insurgents, and while they were perfectly serviceable in that function, the heart, you felt was with the conflicted Lee.
After an exciting opening where he tries to coax a resistance fighter out of an ambush only to see him overwhelmed by government troops, leaving only his shot-off toe (!) behind, The Age of Shadows tended to settle into a lot of talk, evidently taking its lead from the World War II dramas featuring the French resistance against the Nazis, of which there had already been an abundance of various levels of intensity. Kim was aiming for intensity, certainly, yet risked losing his audience when he opted to ramp up the paranoia and suspense, at least for that first hour where even we watching were not wholly sure of who we were supposed to be trusting, never mind the fighters.
It took a while, but we began to see how the director was piecing together his jigsaw puzzle around the point that the characters end up on a train to Seoul, or a lot of them do, the good guys trying to get there for a major assault, the bad guys trying to expose them and make sure they never get to their destination without being arrested. This whole sequence, which lasted a good while (this was a near-two and a half hours long movie) reminded us why Kim was so respected and had won such a following across the world, as it was the highlight, a masterfully assembled exercise in espionage in a confined space where we genuinely do not know who will emerge the victor. What we are assured of is that there will be an explosion of violence, and possibly an actual explosion of explosives, before the film is over.
The story was so down on the Koreans that though this had been based in fact to an extent, it grew so you thought Kim was laying it on fairly thick, though it was true that the Japanese exerted some of the most brutal torture methods any government of the twentieth century cared to use, at least from one claiming to be civilised. To that end there was a sense of regular point-scoring from the Koreans making this, getting their own back in cinematic form now they could do so without a threat of backlash or the dire consequences their characters were facing, but if you were able to overlook the politics then here was a highly accomplished thriller with dramatic episodes to flesh out what could have been a collection of Secret Army stereotypes. All that said, no matter how downbeat this became, there was little doubt of how it would end, there was no way a Korean movie was going to close with a defeat, though a Pyrrhic victory could be argued when the body count was this high. Music by Mowg.