Kang Je-Gyu's "Shiri" is a superior political thriller in which jolting action strikes a balance with serious reflection and genuine emotion. A blockbuster hit in South Korea, the release of "Shiri" in the U.S. now is even more timely and universal in the wake of Sept. 11 than upon its initial release in late 1999. It has all the ingredients for an international success, but as good as the English subtitles are, there needs to be more of them to make the film as fully accessible as intended. This, however, should not deter fans of Asian cinema used to trusting that convoluted plots will become clear in the final reel.
"Shiri" takes its title from a freshwater fish that can survive only in the clearest seas and, during spawning season, swims upstream against the swiftest currents. It is therefore symbolic of the Korean longing for reunification and the uphill struggle to see it come to pass. This dynamic, visually stunning film is set against a 1998 soccer match between North and South Korea that takes place in a Seoul stadium in the presence of the presidents of both Koreas. Inevitably, "Shiri," in setting and plot, recalls Larry Peerce's "Two Minute Warning" (1976) and John Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" (1977). As this event--so crucial in the tense relations between the two nations--approaches, South Korea's intelligence agency is confronted with disturbing evidence that the elusive Hee, a ruthless and daring North Korean female terrorist, has renewed her activities after a long dormant period. Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu) and his younger partner, Lee (Song Kang-Ho), are assigned to track her down. It quickly becomes clear that Hee is not acting alone, and a cohort, Park (Choi Min-Sik), soon manages to hijack a gallon of CTX--a new and ferocious liquid weapon almost indistinguishable from water--that could easily wipe out the city of Seoul.
Amid mounting tension and suspense "Shiri" manages to raise a plethora of questions and implications. Why would anyone want to thwart the first steps toward rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea since the war ended in 1953? How is it that Hee and her associates seem always to be a few steps ahead of Ryu and Lee? Digging deeper, "Shiri" deals with conflicts between the political and the personal--between love and duty--while evoking an atmosphere of fear much like America has experienced since the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.
On the personal level, Lee has broken up with his girlfriend, while Ryu has fallen in love with Hyun (Kim Yun-Jin), a recovering alcoholic. Hyun sells tropical fish from her elegant, aquarium-filled shop, which is connected to an apartment she shares with Ryu. They are deeply in love, but it's impossible not to wonder how the appealing and clearly vulnerable Hyun will hold up married to a secret agent, especially when of necessity she will be kept in the dark about his demanding and dangerous assignments.
In recent years, South Korean cinema has fully flowered, producing both uncompromising highly personal films and crisp, intelligent genre movies, with "Shiri" the most spectacular example of the latter to date. Clearly, South Korea is poised to fill the void left by the largely dormant Hong Kong film industry; it is hoped that American distributors will take note.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and some language. Times guidelines: The film's violence is standard for the action-thriller genre.
A Samuel Goldwyn Films release of a Samsung Entertainment Group presentation of a Kang Je-Gyu Film Co. production. Writer-producer-director Kang Je-Gyu. Cinematographer Kim Seong-Bok. Editor Park Gok-Ji. Music Lee Dong-Jun. Production designer Jung Do-An. Art director Park Il-Hyun. In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
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