Foreign Contenders: Cloak-And-Dagger Thriller The Age of Shadows Has Kim Jee-woon Channeling His Inner Patriot

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MovieMaker‘s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” features interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.


Blood-spilling takes on honorable connotations in South Korean master moviemaker Kim Jee-woon’s newest confection, The Age of Shadows. A period piece that momentarily removes the director from the gory, sophisticated and violent visions that have propelled him to the foreground of international cinema, the film allows him to reshape a traditional formula into an authentically Korean spy thriller. Channeling the uniqueness in style and audacious storytelling that characterize gems such as I Saw the Devil or A Tale of Two Sisters into an intriguing historical setting, Jee-woon observes the moral battles of Koreans during the 1920s, when Japan occupied the country, while never betraying his cinematic ethics.

Produced by Warner Bros., the studio’s first venture in the Asian nation, The Age of Shadows, focuses on a Korean traitor, captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), who is quick to turn his back on his country and routinely sells out resistance fighters to secure his position within the Japanese-installed system. Yet, the resistance remains active, clever and ready to get retribution. Lee, like many in a divided country, is forced to play his role in a psychological game that is as compelling intellectually as it is aesthetically.

Director Kim Jee-woon spoke with MovieMaker about adapting Western tropes for a Korean story, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and why conversations are more difficult to shoot than an intensive action sequence on a train.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What particular notions or historical facts about this period in Korean history compelled you to pursue such a grand narrative?

Kim Jee-woon (KJ): This was the first time Koreans had lost sovereignty of their nation over to Japan; there were a lot of battles and wars previously, but this was the first time they lost their sovereignty completely. It was also a time when Western culture was coming into Korea for the first time, so obviously there were a lot of clashes and dilemmas during this period. I thought portraying those clashes within and outside of Korea would be interesting. Before I became a filmmaker, I read a book about a Korean resistance fighter who was fighting for the nation in Manchuria, and I was very much moved by that book. I thought I’d like to make a film about it some day. Action-wise, this was portrayed in my previous film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but for this film I wanted to focus on the idea of fighting and sacrificing for the nation. It’s about an undercover double agent, and I thought this period would be the most appropriate to portray this kind of spy film. I also thought that portraying this kind of character would send a message to audiences today because it’s still relevant.

MM: Tell us about the writing process and achieving a balanced depiction of both sides: Korean and Japanese.

KJ: First there were writers who wrote the first version of the initial version of the screenplay, and then I edited it and rewrote it. I thought it was very important not to portray the Japanese as evil or dark. It’s not about accusing Japanese people, but accusing imperialism and the system that made them do these evil deeds. In that sense, I wanted to also portray how everyone has their own stories; everyone has their own reasons why they commit these kinds of horrible actions. It was important to balance it out.

Song Kang-ho is Lee Jung-Chool, head of the state police in The Ages of Shadows. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

MM: What was added, or left out, during your rewrite, and with what purpose?

KJ: I thought this kind of period piece would be very expensive to make, so I wanted to make into a more commercial film. That’s why I added the scenes getting rid of the traitors, and I also added the train sequence to create more excitement. I also tried to convey the message of the film, which is the hypocrisy of the period.

MM: While your previous films were not micro-budget productions, this film is definitely on a completely different scale. What approach did you take to make this authentically Korean even when there are elements of Western literature in it?

KJ: I feel like I was able to concentrate more on portraying human emotions, their psychology, their motives, and how their psychology changes, compared to my previous films. Another change was that it first started out as a very cold spy film, and in order to portray that I would find references in foreign classics Tinker Tailor Solder SpyThe Third Man, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; but I found out it was quite different, because those films would portray the clashes between Western cultures and Western powers during the first and second World Wars. For this film I felt that it started out as a cold spy film, but it became more and more heated because it wasn’t about the clashes between Western cultures—it was about sacrificing and fighting for your own nation. That desperate sentiment makes it more heated.

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