A convoluted plot with a humanistic angle
The Berlin File is a South Korean action thriller film made by Ryoo Seung-wan. It is a solid cold war-style spy thriller which blends international espionage with Asian exoticism, amidst the political rivalry between North and South Korea, an artificial divide created by cold war rivals, namely USA and the USSR.
Interestingly, the cold war ‘officially’ came to an end but unfortunately, the Korean peninsula is still suffering the consequences.
So begins The Berlin File with a feverish pitch, skip-bleach, grungy look and fast-paced film that has the dominant theme of espionage and subterfuge. It portrays the typical North and South Korean political rivalries, set within the spy-action genre, majorly inspired by the cinematic structure of The Bourne Identity (as admitted to by the director himself).
There’s also a brief flash of a book exchanged between two spies from different agencies which turned out to be ‘Der Spion, der aus der kälte kam’ (The Spy who came in from the cold), as director Ryoo pays homage to John Le Carré and his spy thrillers.
The Berlin File thematically brings alive the cold war era feuds in a contemporary setting. Secret arms deals and money laundering form the backdrop of the political conflicts between the rival countries, with a plethora of international spy agencies, playing the dangerous game of espionage and manipulations.
In trying to outwit each other in a bid to stay one up on their rival agencies – an eternal source of conflicts arises, moves and counter-moves or manipulations and counter-manipulations, a never-ending series of political chess from the boardroom to the streets while the protagonists are treated as pawns.
The film is entirely shot on locations in Europe and is set in Berlin, popularly perceived (during the cold war era) as the espionage capital of the world, and supposedly hosts a nexus of cloak and dagger operations amongst the various agencies and organizations, including the NIS (South Korea), the RGB (North Korea), the Mossad (Israel), the CIA (USA) and an Arab terrorist group.
We also get an eclectic mix of a multilingual cast speaking in Korean, German, English and Arabic with almost forty percent of the dialogues in English.
Interestingly, the central character in the film, Pyo Jong-seong is a North Korean spy (portrayed by the rugged, masculine looking and well-known actor, Ha Jung-woo), labelled as a ‘ghost agent’, whose information cannot be found on any intelligence database. He is a top-class agent, a hero of the Republic and is unapologetically patriotic to his home country till the end – a staunch communist, a vicious fighter and a man with his heart in the right place.
But when an arms deal between him and an Arab terrorist with a Russian arms dealer is violently disrupted by a third-party intervention, he finds himself embroiled in a deep-rooted conspiracy, where his loyalty to the state is put to the test against his loyalty towards his mentor, the North Korean Ambassador, Ri Hak-soo (portrayed by veteran South Korean actor, Lee Geung-young) and even loyalty towards his wife, Ryun Jung-hee, who’s a translator to the Ambassador (Jun Ji-hyun).
The film explores the empty life of a North Korean spy, stuck in a loveless marriage, the prospect of being denounced by higher authorities (for any transgression, real or imaginary) and facing torture and death. It is the Damocles sword bearing down on every individual working for the regime. As for any beautiful woman working for the regime, using one’s sexuality for the sake of political advantage is a given which helps flesh out Ji-hyun’s character.
At the other end, is Jong-seong’s nemesis and the second lead character, the South Korean NIS agent, Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu). Jin-soo is an upright man. He’s a typical old-school, the last of his kind, bears an inherent hatred for communists and is generally disliked by the upper echelons of his agency for his no-nonsense attitude. He’s not the type who’ll kowtow to his superiors. He is a man of principles and dislikes the dirty politics within the system.
Dong Myung-soo (played by Ryoo Seung-bum) is the main antagonist in the film. Also, unlike a typical secret agent who would normally keep a low profile and stay low-key, Seung-bum gives him an almost flamboyant attitude, a sadistic psychopath, more like a gangster than a seasoned officer.
His first introductory scene of ruthlessly killing a petty thief, with a pen injection is more style than substance and endeavours to present a vicious killer, who will sit on judgement over the protagonists.
Despite the huge morass of political upmanship between different organizations, and the convoluted plots and sub-plots, the film successfully does its job of telling a humanistic story as it boils down to the protagonist, a North Korean agent trying to protect his wife from the suspicion of betrayal and subsequent execution, as per the system.
Interestingly, the villain is not the North Korean Government that some anti-war movies try to show, but an individual officer in the regime, who has put forth an insidious plot to take over the Berlin office. Jong-seong and his wife are just pawns in the game of chess played within the internal factions of the North Korean regime.
Read More: The Berlin File Ending Explained
Verdict - 7.5/10