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December 24, 2013

The Berlin File

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Ryoo Seung-wan - 2013
CJ Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Throughout much of The Berlin File, Ryoo employs the two shot in filming his characters. For those unfamiliar with the term, the two shot is the shot of two characters within the same frame. The use of this visual motif underlines two aspects of the characters. Virtually all of the characters have, or appear to have, double existences, both professionally and personally. Also, each character is paired with someone else, sometimes, very briefly working together, but more often in opposition. Everyone here is a spy, but it's never clear whose side they are on.

Duality is indirectly referred to also in setting the film in Berlin, the once divided city, where those on the eastern side reputedly spied on each other in the name of loyalty to the Communist regime. Ryoo doesn't spend any time providing the kind of tourist's eye view that is often employed in films using a foreign location, but one can spot the Brandenburg Gate in the background during a scene of two secret agents fighting it out on a rooftop.

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What begins as North Koreans and South Koreans spying on each other in Berlin, gets murkier with involvement by the C.I.A., the Mossad, and an Arab terrorist organization. Adding to this are the conflicts within each organization, adding to the tension, and the concept of duality. Jong-seong, the North Korean "ghost" agent is under suspicion for his part in a failed illegal agreement with a notorious Russian arms dealer that ends up with a gunfight, and the sudden appearance of Mossad agents. Jong-seong's wife is not only suspected of trying to defect by others within the North Korean embassy in Berlin, but suspected by her husband as well. The unseen hand that determines much of the action is that of "the party", the North Korean elite best connected to Kim Jong-un.

Certainly, what makes the DVD release so timely is the recent news from North Korea. That the loyalties of the North Korean characters are constantly questioned by each other, where political expediency trumps any other kind of relationship, is less abstract in light current events. The Berlin File would suggest that what took place in Pyongyang plays out on a smaller, private scale, between people with their own political and personal stakes, all in the name of "The Republic".

The DVD comes with a "Making of , , ," supplement. One of the more informative bits of information that would be lost on those, like myself, who don't speak Korean, or watch the English dubbed version, is that there are a variety of North Korean accents. Not that not knowing this should in any way get in the way of enjoying the action, but it is a reminder of how some cultural details get lost. Ryoo also explains how martial arts specific to North Korea was employed in the scenes of hand to hand fighting.

While The Berlin File is mostly serious viewing, there is fun is discovering who the spies are. And just when you think you have things figured out, Ryoo finds another way to pull the rug out from under the trusting audience.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 24, 2013 07:57 AM