The Berlin File
Dir: Ryoo Seung-wan
Screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s ‘Focus On Korea’ strand, The Berlin File is the latest film from high-profile Korean director Ryoo Seung-wan. A thriller that weaves a tangled plot of governmental backstabbing and secret agent shootouts against the background of Germany’s capital, the film is intriguing as an attempt to bring Korean cinema to a larger overseas (and specifically Western) audience, but it ultimately fails to overcome its own fundamental genericism.
Opening with the negotiation of a secret deal between an arms dealer and North Korean ‘ghost operative’ Pyo (Ha Jung-woo), the film wastes little time before descending into a disorienting series of gun and fist fights – an approach that’s gripping at first, but that also comes at the expense of any sort of narrative coherence early on.
While a labyrinthine plot in a thriller such as this isn’t necessarily a negative attribute, The Berlin File is so immediately overwhelming that it bemuses instead of enthralling. A bewildering number of factions are introduced early on – a cadre of Arab arms dealers, the CIA, an embattled South Korean agent (Han Suk-kyu) – and though all conform competently enough to their expected archetypes, they offer little in the way of personality.
Narrative confusion aside however, the film offers some suitably tense, visceral action sequences, and its fine pacing ensures that there is always a pleasing sense of momentum to the proceedings. Clichés abound – some knowingly, others not – and the dialogue is awfully trite in places, but it’s well shot, and some good central performances from Ha Jung-woo and lead antagonist Ryu Seung-bum go some way toward redeeming its overall blandness.
One of the more frustrating films from this year’s EIFF then, The Berlin File does some things very well indeed, but for all its slick editing and kinetic fight scenes, it suffers due to a convoluted plot and a severe lack of character.