In the first of many commanding set pieces in "The Age of Shadows," a superb cloak-and-dagger entertainment that's set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, one man follows another through a courtyard while a wave of officers swarm across the rooftops in hot pursuit. Leaping in loose, nimble formations from one building to the next, these officers resemble nothing so much as rifle-wielding extras in a 1920s spy-thriller replay of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
It's a stunning image, and for all the adrenaline of the moment, its irresistible momentum has a way of putting you weirdly at ease. Over the course of this relentlessly swift 140-minute movie, your mind may race to keep up with the particulars of what's at stake and who's crossing whom. But the South Korean director Kim Jee-woon likes to work at his own pace, and he carries you over the narrative ramparts with style, verve and abundant confidence that all will be made clear in due course.
There are many mysteries in "The Age of Shadows," none more compelling than the question of where one man's allegiance lies. He's Lee Jung-chool, a Korean police captain whose cruel Japanese overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country's resistance movement. But while Lee — played with an unerring balance of sympathy and moral ambiguity by the great Song Kang-ho — has a history of selling out his own people to secure a favorable position with the Japanese, he's been hit harder than usual by the death of Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon), a resistance fighter who used to be his classmate.
The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun, in an extended cameo), senses that this turncoat, if approached and handled properly, might be turned once more — this time in their favor. And so begins an incremental, ingeniously coded psychological dance between Lee and a key resistance figure named Kim Woo-jin (the excellent Gong Yoo, "Train to Busan"), whose antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. While Lee could theoretically bring down this operation at any moment, he seems just as likely to become an ally, thanks in no small part to Kim's skillful application of pressure.
The screenwriters, Lee Ji-min and Park Jong-dae, embellish this crafty scenario with no shortage of ingenious complications, effectively doubling the number of double agents at every turn. After Jan-ok is betrayed to the enemy, Che-san becomes aware of a mole somewhere in the resistance. Meanwhile, Lee Jung-chool, deemed untrustworthy by his superiors because of his Korean heritage, is saddled with a partner named Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo, ferocious), a sadistic Japanese zealot who begins secretly monitoring Lee's every move.
A filmmaker as attuned to detail and process as a watchmaker, Kim Jee-woon allows the machinations to build up and play out in inexorable yet unpredictable fashion. The centerpiece of "The Age of Shadows" is a long, glorious sequence in which all the principal characters find themselves on a train to Seoul, their various agendas and alliances shifting at every moment as they move between carriages. With its brutal, close-quarters action choreography and its steadily intensifying suspense — you may be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, if not James Bond — the sequence is a tour de force in a movie that, minute by vise-like minute, proves worthy of the same designation.
Although rooted in a real-life 1923 plot to blow up a Japanese police station in Seoul, "The Age of Shadows" (which will represent South Korea in the Academy Awards race for foreign-language film) is less a fact-based drama than a deliriously unhinged B-movie fantasia that quickly slips the bonds of its historical framework. If the title carries inescapable echoes of "Army of Shadows," Jean-Pierre Melville's incomparable 1969 thriller about the French Resistance, the connection is underscored here by a female fighter, Yun Gye-soon (Han Ji-min, lovely and lethal in a red cloche hat), and also by the numerous scenes of her rightly suspicious collaborators ruthlessly pruning their own ranks.
Never less than a showcase for its alternately sumptuous and realistically muted production design, as well as Kim Ji-yong's lustrous widescreen camerawork, "The Age of Shadows" marks an outstanding return to form for Kim Jee-woon after his strained Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, "The Last Stand." (The title of that bizarre Hollywood misadventure proved happily un-prescient.) Festival-goers and fans of extreme Asian cinema will remember him better for the ultra-violent likes of "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" (2010), a gleeful Eastern spin on the spaghetti western that memorably pitted Song and Lee Byung-hun against each other, and "I Saw the Devil" (2011), a horrifying serial-killer thriller that demands to be watched through one's fingers or not at all.
A connoisseur of screen violence who can make even his famous countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook look timid by comparison, Kim Jee-woon has curbed but not sacrificed those grisly impulses here, as the arterial gushers and close-ups of severed digits will attest. But nothing in this gratifyingly focused movie feels excessive or gratuitous, and a situation that repeatedly threatens to spiral out of control is dramatized with the utmost assurance. These fighters and their undeniable heroism notwithstanding, resistance is futile.
'The Age of Shadows'
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles