A business negotiation between a Russian arms broker, a Middle-Eastern terrorist and a North Korean spy goes awry when a group of Mossad agents ambush them. Unknown to them, several other parties are interested in the negotiation, listening in from a few meters outside the hotel room where the negotiation takes place. One of them is Jung Jin Soo, a South Korean intelligence agent. As the North Korean spy involved in the arms deal fails to be identified by the South Korean database, Jung tries to pursue him when the deal breaks, yet eventually fails.
The spy is Pyo Jong Seong, a man loyal to his country, living quietly in Berlin with his wife Ryeon Jung Hee, who works as an interpreter for the North Korean ambassador. The pair communicates stiffly, saying what is only necessary. They live in a dull, claustrophobic apartment, of course with a picture of the Dear Leader hung on one of its walls. Following the recent failed arms transaction, Pyongyang sends a ruthless agent Dong Myung Soo to take care of things. Dong, however, has an agenda of his own. He goes to see Pyo and tells him about how his wife might be a double agent, leaving Pyo torn between loyalty to his country and his wife.
That is probably only about a tenth of the whole story. Other storylines involve a secret stash of $4 billion belonging to the recently deceased Kim Jong Il, the CIA, the Mossad, and who knows what else. The story tries to engage so many parties that just when you begin to comprehend who’s who and who’s doing what, you lose it and start all over again. I get that spy thrillers are all meant to be confusing, they are not about mere action sequences but more about intricate politics that make you feel stupid for not being able to follow the story. Sometimes it works, but this time it just makes you stop caring. Director and writer Ryu Seung Wan is so busy messing with your mind that he doesn’t let his characters breathe.
Jeon Ji Hyun is reserved as Ryeon Jung Hee and I enjoyed seeing this side of her. Although still with her signature long black hair, this time Jeong doesn’t rely on her sex appeal and it’s good to see her pulling that off. Ha Jung Woo plays Pyo Jeong Seong and really, is there a time when Ha disappoints? This role is far from his best, but he always delivers. Whether he’s a serial killer equipped with a hammer or a spy running around breaking glass through buildings, Ha has a major presence on screen as a leading actor. Senior actor Han Suk Kyu doesn’t seem to fit really well with the setting, with his inadequate English (which can be laughable at times) and what ticks me off is the non-existent chemistry between him and Ha. We’re so used to dynamic chemistries between two main leading roles in Korean films, such as Ha and Kim Yun Seok in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Ryu Seung Beom and Seol Kyeong Gu in No Mercy, Song Kang Ho and Kang Dong Won in Secret Reunion, it’s odd to see a pair so lacking in chemistry in a film as big as this. Ryu Seung Beom (director Ryu Seung Wan’s brother) is a great actor, but with such a face, he’s played so many loud, manic characters that it can become a bore at times. It’s not like he didn’t do a great job though, he did. However, despite all these good performances, with the many plots fighting for your attention, little time is given to let them engage, both with one another and with the audience. As a result, we don’t sympathize much when the supposedly-emotional scenes occur.
The action sequences, of course, are quite satisfying. Although overall the film doesn’t offer anything new, the action scenes are still fun and there’s one involving cables that you will undoubtedly remember. The blue-gray-ish hue of the cinematography helps build the international-spy-thriller feeling and the backdrop of Berlin fits everything beautifully. The climax scene takes place far from old buildings of the city and smartly makes use of a field, as captivating as what you see in Skyfall.
On another note, it’s incredibly frustrating how an actor with a high caliber like Lee Byung Hun can be hired to play a shirtless Asian assassin with a name like Snake Eyes while a big budget Korean thriller can barely hire a professional American male actor as a CIA agent. Seriously. The movie budgeted at $9 million, shot almost entirely on location in Europe, with high profile Korean actors such as Ha Jung Woo and Jeon Ji Hyun and yet they couldn’t even hire one. Proper. American. Actor. Stop selling yourself short, Korea, have higher standards for foreign roles. An actor like Ha Jung Woo deserves to exchange dialogues on screen with a legitimate foreign actor and not a random Caucasian one picks at Itaewon. Oh, and maybe save some of that budget to create a proper CGI explosion next time.