Ryoo Seung-wan’s “The Berlin File,” a South Korean thriller opening in the U.S. on the heels of its release at home, takes Hollywood’s penchant for spectacle and ADD visual neurosis to its logical albeit absurd conclusion.
A plot, so overly convoluted as to be nearly unintelligible, sinks in a sea of visual overload caused by quick cuts, split screens, nervous music, a mobile camera, frequent gun battles and a surfeit of stunts.
Rather than quicken the pulse or build the narrative, these elements turn into a tedious abstraction. Whatever the message may be, the medium — the method of its expression — obscures the story nearly completely.
Everything takes place in the German capital, which the movie sees as being not much changed from the Cold War era when, as the joke went, six out of 10 people walking the streets of Berlin were spies.
The illicit arms deal going down at the film’s opening must be the worst kept secret in the history of clandestine operations. Everyone has either bugged the room or is in on the action: North Koreans, South Koreans, the CIA, the Mossad, Russians and even some Arabs.
Only the Germans seem unaware of what is transpiring on their turf. Throughout the movie hotels invariably have to ring up local police to inform them that another gun battle has broken out on upstairs floors.
Fleeing the deal gone bust is North Korean agent Jong-sung (Ha Jung-woo). Pursuing him is South Korean operative Jin-Soo (Han Suk-kyo) and also, even though you’re told Jong-sung is a “hero” to his country, gung-ho North Korean agent Myung-Soo (Ryoo Seung-beom, the director’s brother).
But then he suspects everyone’s loyalties. He is particularly bent on implicating Jong-sung’s pregnant wife, Jong-seong (Gianna Jun), who works at the North Korean embassy as a translator.
This sets up not only a bad case of divided loyalties for the North Korean but an excuse for a series of set pieces that all start to look alike.
Indeed the movie calls into question just how many gun battles and killings you can stage in a European capital before authorities start to take notice.
The movie gets so distracted by action and its struggle to establish a brooding atmosphere that it fails to investigate any of its characters beyond the superficial question of who’s side are they really on. Less action and more introspection might have helped.
Muddying the waters further is the indifferent English language skills of its all-star Korean cast — and the decision not to subtitle any English dialogue no matter how difficult it is to understand.
Shot on location in Berlin and the Latvia capital of Riga, the film looks grand on the surface but ventures no further.
At one point a John le Carré novel makes a brief appearance as a token gesture of the film’s model for its melancholy mood. The movie unfortunately never comes close to that author’s amazing capacity to look into the souls of his spy characters.
Opens: February 15, 2013 (CJ Entertainment)
Production companies: Filmmaker R&K, CJ E&M
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Han Suk-kyu, Ryoo Seung-boem, Gianna Jun, Kim Seo-hyung, Lee Geung-young
Director/screenwriter: Ryoo Seung-wan
Producers: Kang Hye-Jung
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung
Director of photography: Choi Young-hwan
Production designer: Chun Soo-a
Music: Cho Young-wuk
Costume designer: Shin Ji-young
Editor: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
No rating, 120 minutes