Entirely silly, unpolished popcorn fodder that feels like Hollywood but tastes like Korea.
Korean cinema is becoming increasing hailed as the new Hong Kong, where inventive filmmakers such as Chan Wook Park have freedom to produce occasionally extreme, shocking, sometimes groundbreaking works. Shiri may well have been popular, but it's also hugely conventional, coming across as little more than a low budget rehash of a few Hollywood films.
It's likely the film disappoints because for the first five minutes it promises a different film than in eventually delivers. Opening on a North Korean special forces training facility, it shows several recruits going though terrifically brutal training exercises, with some entirely over the top violence involved. It seems that prisoners in North Korea are treated as expendable flesh for target practice, as we see them tied to stakes to be victims of a charging special forces knife attack. As one of the special forces has a sudden attack of morality and refuses, his instructor Park (Min-sik Choi) calmly shoots him in the head. Recruits are raced against prisoners to see who can reassemble a handgun and shoot the other quickest. The entire corps of trainees are thrown into a room full of prisoners for an utterly chaotic and blood-soaked Battle Royale, with the successful special forces shown proudly holding the decapitated heads of their fallen enemies. The camera mostly follows a young lass named Hee, who is the most exceptional talent and eventual focus of the movie.
It's a shocking and hugely energetic opening sequence, helped by director Je-gyu Kang's camerawork, shaking and juddering as though you were part of the action yourself. It works so well here, it's perhaps not surprising that the same technique is used for every action scene in the movie. This backfires somewhat, as it quickly loses the impact it had in this impressive opening and becomes annoying, leaving you screaming for a Steadycam.
Hee graduates, ceremonially burns a picture of her family as a symbol of devotion to the cause and goes off for a career as hitwoman of various South Korean targets. Two of the best South Korean 'secret' agents (they have helicopters with their department logo painted on them. I think it's really supposed to be 'special' agent, like the D.E.A or something) are assigned to find out who she is and how to capture her. Over a few years they get closer, but just as they find out her identity and move to arrest her, they find another victim with 'Goodbye' scrawled across him. Nothing more is heard from her for a year.
The agents, Ryu (Suk-kyu Han) and Lee (Kang-ho Song) are about to give up hope when a meeting with an informant turns into a desperate chase through Seoul, as something clearly spooks their contact. As it turns out, with good reason. When Ryu eventually corners him, the informant is brought down by a sniper, using the same 'trademarked' bullet wounds of Hee. The questions abound, what was the informant going to tell them and why is it so important that the North would risk using an agent whose identity was known to them.
Rye and Lee try to piece together what's happening, but they always remain one step behind Hee and the trail of corpses she's leaving. The one connecting factor is their involvement in a project that has created a new and potent type of explosive, which has the handy property of being indistinguishable from water until subjected to heat and light. At which point a red ball appears in the middle of the liquid. Apparently it's hugely unstable and impossible to predict when it's going to explode, before immediately contradicting this by showing a timer counting down to its explosion. You don't need me to point out how stupid this is.
Suspension of disbelief is important in films, but this pushes me a little too far. It's by far the silliest explosive device ever seen in a movie, stealing elements from Die Hard With A Vengeance and The Rock. Hee has hooked back up with the 8th Special Forces of North Korea, lead by Park. As villains go, Park is a pretty convincing one, as he looks dangerous no matter what he's doing. He and his gang have been charged with the task of stealing this magical CTX explosive, and using it in a variety of nefarious schemes. They warn the police that one of the devices has been positioned on top of a hotel, which they find just in time for it to blow them up. This does a fair bit of damage to the hotel, but seeing as earlier the freelance government scientist told the agents that a far lesser quantity would vaporise everything within a kilometre it seems that the explosive power had to be sacrificed for the budget.
Perhaps I'm being a trifle harsh on the cheap looking aspects on the film because it is pretty impressive to see what has been achieved with a limited budget. At $5 million dollars, this would not cover the catering bill on the average Brockheimer production, so it's a miracle that they have pulled off some impressive firefights throughout the course of the movie. Well executed, and given the huge amount of rounds being fired off manages to show the characters reloading at nearly believable intervals, as compared to the infinitely large clips given to characters in John Woo's bullet driven excesses. The fights turn into running gun battles with Parks forces being chased by large squads of agent through Seoul's streets, which is one of the scenes more suited to Kang's shaky camera. It's still odd to see that for once the good guys have been given Stormtrooper Syndrome, where despite being highly trained shooters they can't hit a barn door and are picked off with ridiculous ease by Park's crack troops. Even their body armor seems to be a decoration more than protection.
It all leads to a plot by Park's troops to blow up the football stadium where the North and South Korean teams are having a much anticipated match, watched by the leaders of the two nations. The rationale for this is never fully explained. Park claims it to be a step towards reunification of the countries, to redress the imbalance of poverty and famine in the North with the affluence of the South. He makes an impassioned, effective and moving speech about the plight of his nation, but never explains the more salient points of how his big bang theory suddenly ends in the countries re-unifying.
There's a throwaway comment earlier about the army being in decline, which I can only guess meaning politically rather than numerically, so I thought perhaps by killing the North Korean leader the military could assume power and launch an attack against the South, but this is all guesswork and supposition. The whole thing seems to give the impression that the director just want to make this seem deeper than it really is, as though it has some comment on Korea's unique political situation rather than merely using them as a backdrop. However, it doesn't, and the whole thing comes off as being poorly though out and contrived to put a bunch of innocent lives on the line to raise the stakes of the finale.
The story's a little better than made out above, and it does try it's best to make Ryu and Lee's chase of the baddies more interesting by throwing a number of little twists into the tale. There's a suspected leak in the agency, a question mark over the current identity of Hee, and a strange obsession with fish which has a pay off of sorts rather than being a random embellishment. It's just a pity that all of the twists themselves are fairly formulaic, and you'll probably work them out as soon as there's a hint of one in the air.
In terms of plot and action, this is really no worse than the majority of Hollywood pot-boilers, but everything here has been done before with much more polish. It has a few deft touches, but they tend to be outweighed by the general silliness of it all and the good ideas get lost in the mix somehow. In a cinema landscape overflowing with action goodness over the coming months, there's little reason to recommend Shiri although to it's credit it flows along with such pace that it's only once the credits roll you realise that the experience was so much less than it could have been.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Min-sik Choi (Park, Mu-young)
Yoon-jin Kim (Lee, Myung-hyun / Lee, Bang-hee)
Kang-ho Song (Lee, Jang-gil)
Derek Kim (Jung, Dae-Ho)