“It’s my job. There is no reason for doing your job. You just do it.” So says Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) late in The Berlin File. At the moment, he’s only sort of doing his job as a South Korean National Intelligence Service agent, which is to say, he’s observing an enemy agent’s activities and also engaged in a terse conversation with a North Korean ghost agent, Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo), whom Jin-soo has just rescued… or kidnapped… or maybe even recruited.
You might say that the uncertain relationship between Jin-soo and Pyo is at the film’s center, but it’s a relationship premised on distrust, disloyalty, and dysfunction. And that makes for a very shaky center. This premise has to do with the business the men are in, of course, and The Berlin File makes it clear from the start that no one can trust anyone: Pyo appears in a vague disguise, undercover for an illegal arms deal involving or observed by agents from North and South Korea, an Arab buyer, Mossad interlopers, and the CIA (as, of course, the CIA is ever involved in such business). Jin-soo is one of the observers, and he spends much of the movie trying to decipher Pyo’s motives. This is also his job, though it’s an explicitly impossible one. No matter what Pyo might say, he’s bound to be lying.
Just so, when Jin-soo asks Pyo why he’s agreed to work with him, for this moment, the opposing agent comes up with a reason that sounds reasonable and also unlikely. It happens that his wife Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), an interpreter at Berlin’s North Korean Embassy, is kidnapped by the patently villainous Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum), a North Korean agent and rather eager killer. It may be that Pyo is actually thinking of retrieving her, given that he’s promised her he would. But he might have been lying, too. “It’s my wife,” Pyo tells Jin-soo, “There is no reason for saving my wife.” As he ends on this rather ominous beat, you and Jin-soo might be wondering just how to parse it.
For the time being, Jin-soo goes on the assumption that they will rescue the wife, who has recently been accused of being a double agent and oh yes, is pregnant with a baby who may not be her husband’s. Both Jin-soo and Pyo are frequently distracted by side-plots, say, some international spy-hijinks linked to Kim Jong-il’s $4 billion bank account and a passing reference to the enigma of Kim Jong-un, but for the most part, they wrestle with this question of trust, whether they trust one another and whether Pyo trusts his wife.
And so The Berlin File wraps up its action in melodrama, or vice versa (this being a favorite combination for any number of American action movie makers, from John McTiernan to Jim Cameron to Tony Scott). While Ryoo Seung-wan’s movie takes a few moments to lay out the husband-wife tension—in brief bits of scenes where she complains that their lives are dictated by his being known as “the hero of the Republic” and he complains that she’s lying to him—it handles their moral and emotional dilemma much as it handles any others that come up, with a vivid interruption by gunfire. Pyo and Ryun are soon enough split up, she escaping through the apartment window and along the wall, he shooting back, kicking and grunting, crashing through sensationally shattering glass and eventually, left at the mercy of Jin-soo, who arrives on the scene with a gun he points directly at Pyo’s head, revealed in a dramatic sharp angle.
If The Berlin File isn’t much for sorting through reasons or emotional backgrounds through conversation—“Men betray,” Pyo sums up at one perfectly apt point—it is very intent on constructing elaborate consequences in the form of not-so-surprising hyper-actionated sequences. These range from conventional to quite clever, particularly when the four principals find themselves in a huge field of windblown grasses, either scampering in half-crouches or hugging the ground to disappear, shooting or ducking. It’s a scene that cannot end well, you know from its start, but it’s so carefully crafted that it’s also compelling, especially the sounds of the grass and the wind as these provide background and punctuation for the incessant gunshots. In this vast, illegible space—cryptic editing makes it hard to tell where anyone is in relation to someone else, except when they’re in the same frame together—the shooters and the shot lurch and crumple, stumble and tumble, bleed and gasp and gaze sadly into one another’s faces.
This ambiguity of space—disorienting, almost lovely, and also perverse—goes pretty much directly to the film’s thematic point. If pinning men’s moral struggles to a pregnant woman isn’t the most forward-looking device, here at least you’re not neatly aligned with any of the men. Ryun asks Pyo repeatedly why he’s been unable to believe her, and also why he is so “cruel.” As a measure of how he is “doing his job,” as a hero or as an agent or even a double agent, that cruelty might make sense. As Ryun embodies his predicaments and also his costs for doing that job, she’s more an extension of his plot than someone with her own. To its credit, the film presents this as a problem, for Pyo, for Jin-soo, and for you.