Shiri (South Korea 1999)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/12/01
Cast: Kim Yun-Jin, Choi Min-Sik

Korea's most successful film to date, and my first experience with Korean cinema. In the late 90's when the Hong Kong film industry had all but collapsed, the Korean film industry experienced a bit of a renaissance. "Shiri" is a top rate production that infuses political intrigue, police drama, love and betrayal, and high octane action into a tight and mostly coherent package. The film starts off with a severe sucker punch as we see an elite group of North Korean soldiers training in a most brutal manner. At the head of her class, a young girl named Hee passes all of her trials and goes on to become a super-elite sniper in the service of the North Korean revolutionary army. Ten years later, she shows up again as South Korean government agents start to close in on a terrorist act that she's indirectly involved with. Secret agents Ryu and Lee find out that the terrorists are planning to steal a revolutionary new liquid bomb, but they're always one step behind the bad guys. The rest of the film is an escalating game of cat-and-mouse with a growing sense of paranoia, distrust, and dread. Although highly predictable, it never fails to be interesting and exciting.

The film is very well directed and the cinematography is great. The action scenes and gunfights are extremely well done, although the jerky handheld camerawork is frustrating and disorienting. The cast is wonderful and handles the schizophrenic nature of the script very well. At its core, the film is a reflection of the separation of North and South Korea, and the pain and suffering that it has caused. The themes of codependence, togetherness, duality, and separation are seen over and over throughout the film. Even the name "shiri" refers to a native Korean fish, whose home waters are split along the same boundaries as the country. Fortunately, it's not a propaganda film, and only at the end do any real political statements get made. Definitely worth seeing - especially if you can get your hands on the out of print region-free DVD.