Film Review: The Berlin File

The plot may be a challenge to figure out, but this crisply directed spy thriller from Korea holds your attention through its overall smooth professionalism.

An illegal arms deal taking place in a Berlin hotel becomes anything but a covert operation, as it soon involves South Korean chief of intelligence Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu), as well as the North Koreans and the American CIA who are all secretly observing the action. When “ghost” agent Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) shows up, things become even more tangled, as no one knows whose side he is on. Added to the mix is Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum), a North Korean agent and assassin with his own secret agenda, out to investigate everyone’s exact loyalties. Jong-seong’s wife, Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), who works as a translator at Berlin’s North Korean embassy, also becomes implicated and accused of treason, earning the mistrust of her husband and forcing him to make the ultimate decision.

Here it is 2013 and yet, with The Berlin File, we are very much back in the mid-1960s vibe of such Cold War secret agent films as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin. The plot has more twists and turns than those films combined, but writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan, the Korean action master dubbed the “poet of pugilism” by Variety, maintains firm control over the proceedings and turns out a grimly absorbing thriller. The cinematography is appropriately sober, with an evocatively dark palette, and the editing is heartlessly crisp. The film is rife with dire plotting, punctuated by combustible action scenes and impressively executed man-to-man combat, and with Korean, German and English all being spoken on the screen, it has a vivid international flavor.

The acting, by four of Korea’s biggest stars, is uniformly strong, with the guys outdoing one another in taciturn macho and physical prowess. Jun is lovely and intelligent and brings some welcome, softening estrogen to all the grunt-filled bickering and gunplay.