A blockbuster in the best (or worst) of Hollywood traditions, Shiri is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of style, intrigue and explosions. While the plot is at best erratic and at worst occasionally indecipherable, there are enough solid scenes and emotional drama to maintain a momentum of tension and air of mystery.
The film kicks off in gruesome fashion, with scenes from a North Korean elite military training camp in 1992. Whether they are true North Korean militants, or an independent hardline group working towards their own agenda at this stage is unclear. Prisoners are murdered as part of the soldiers’ brutal training programme – the brutality seems especially highlighted while snow falls softly around the troops.
Star student Hee, who shoots with incredible precision, is sent to the South where her mission seems simply to be to kill South Korean agents. Cut to 1998 and enter hero and special agent, Ryu (Han Suckyu) who along with his partner Lee attempts to foil a new operation that suggests Hee is back in action. Eventually the audience learns that Hee is from a group frustrated by the slow pace of reunification. Led by Park (Choi Minsk), Ryu’s old nemesis from a failed hijacking attempt, the group is attempting to provoke a war between the two sides in order to hasten reunification (never mind the logic there).
To do this, they get hold of ten capsules of CTX, a nitroglycerin-like substance that self-detonates when exposed to both heat and light (just like the nitroglycerine in Vertical Limit – sigh – seen it all before), killing all within a massive radius. But attempts to foil the group by Ryu and Lee keep going wrong, until it becomes obvious there is a leak among the special agents. At the same time, Ryu has decided to marry his girlfriend Hyun, an aquarium and fish shop owner with a former alcohol problem. The fish theme persists throughout the film, and allows for some nice scenes, such as the agents’ office filled with calming tanks.
Despite the political undertones (that those in the North are starving while the South is enjoying hamburgers, cheese and coke), Shiri makes clear that it is much more a study of love, friendship and trust under circumstances that make allegiences necessary but fraught. It’s disappointing that the boundaries are pushed through situations rather than any semblance of sophisticated dialogue. Allowances could be made that something is lost in the translation as the English subtitles are startlingly poor, but even that seems unlikely.
The main actors are faced with a challenging script and put in very competent performances, pushing emotions that aren’t often seen done well in this genre. Lee’s devastation is beautifully portrayed as he finds out who the leak is, while Hyun shows versatility and grace in her role. The scenes with these two together sparkle – but they are quickly overshadowed by heavy-handed action scenes.
There are too many holes and convenient plot devices to start listing – particularly without giving the ending away – so if you’re planning on catching Korea’s most expensive and financially successful film ever, be prepared to seriously suspend your disbelief. (But to name just one: Except for providing a poignant ending, what’s the point of the character who lives in care by the sea? Oh, and just one more: It was Lee who gave Hyun the CD, right? So how could Hyun have been the one keen on him? Too fluky!)
In reward (or not) you’ll walk out knowing that when it comes to making a thriller, Korean film-makers are certainly on par with the best from Hollywood, while being able to maintain a style that’s quirky and individual.