The tomb of history
Shiri is a glorious, outrageous hybrid of a movie. Made for something around $5 million, Shiri has made more money in Korea than Titanic since its 1999 release. It has a little something for everyone: simultaneously a cogent political parable and sentimental romance, it’s also a vehicle for its charismatic stars (Han Suk-Gyu being Korea’s “Tom Cruise”) and crazily cartoonish action picture. Beginning with a hyper-condensed “montage,” in which North Korean special forces trainees are put through arduous obstacle courses, rainstorms, and high-pressure, tightly timed shooting tests, as well as a brutal assault on bodies tied to stakes, writer-director Kang Je-Gyu lays out in stunning shorthand all the backstory you’ll need for the scary assassin, Hee (Kim Yun-Jin).
This grueling instruction is set during 1991, and Hee and her colleagues focus all their lethal energies on “the reunification.” By way of explanation for their ferocity, Park (Min-sik Choi), one of Hee’s comrades, compares starving Northern parents who must “eat the flesh of their children” to those complacent South Koreans who consume “fries and soda.” This graphic description effectively establishes the tensions and stakes for Hee’s Special Eighth Force, at least as seen by one particularly vicious and dedicated commando (you can tell he’s vicious and dedicated because he doesn’t shave often, or wash his hair).
Once Hee is sent off to the South, she quickly develops a reputation for lethal brilliance, conveyed by a quick flip through her case file, compiled by South Korea’s counter-terrorism unit, the OP. Labeled by name, occupation, and year of execution, the file features sharply angled forensic photos of her many bloodied, successfully terminated targets. Hee’s most fervent, if frustrated, adversaries are the OP’s Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu) and Lee (Song Kang-Ho). They comprise a familiar movie buddydom: Lee is a loner, serious and married to his job (he carries a picture of Hee in his wallet, identifying her as his missing “ex”), while Ryu is gentler, more thoughtful, and affianced to the lovely Hyun, a recovering alcoholic who also happens to run a tropical fish shop.
Hyun’s vocation occasions much of the film’s décor and several plot events to boot. Spectacularly shot by cinematographer Kim Seong-Bok, fish and water show up everywhere. Not only does her shop contain tanks full of colorful fish and churning, shimmering water, but she has also decorated his OP office with single-station-sized, decorative tanks that she keeps stocked with fabulous fish. One night, when Ryu and Hyun pause to repledge their mutual devotion, they do so in front of a storefront window that is also a large fish tank, so their kiss might be filtered through romantic, gurgling waters. And, of course, given that Shiri is an action film, you know that eventually, all these aquariums will be blasted to pieces. Fish (in and out of water) also serve as governing metaphors. Not only is “shiri” (or, swiri) a type of fish that lives in the streams that flow up and down the divided Korean peninsula, it’s also the codename for the Eighth Force’s latest plot, menacing Seoul with CPX, a potent liquid explosive, in order to coerce reunification.
This plot is set in the film’s present, 1998, when Hee suddenly reemerges after years underground. Lee and Ryu launch back into action, consisting mainly of strikingly shot and edited chase scenes and shootouts, during which they find themselves perpetually a step behind Hee, Park, and their killer team, who plan to plant their explosive at hugely symbolic soccer game, featuring players from North and South (and the packed stadium provides the ideal venue for nervous-making climax). Cars crash, trucks burst into flames, choppers hover, bodies fly. And oh yes, a head explodes when one cornered Eighth Force agent avoids capture according to her training (apparently, cyanide pellets are passé).
In between these terrific action scenes, others are alternately standard and surprising. While some illustrate formulaic plot turns (Ryu and Lee’s boss calls them into his office for a sit-rep, or someone discovers, too late, of course, that he’s been betrayed big-time), others refine characters by unexpected details, with Seoul as backdrop. Workaholic Lee snores during a stage performance of Guys and Dolls; or Ryu and Hyun hang out their laundry on the balcony, discussing their future, as a camera hangs over them as if it’s some creepy surveillance shot.
For all its hyperbole, Shiri conveys a recognizable, even sympathetic face upon the communist North, and speaks to the various divisions that have long troubled Korea. Insisting that Hee remember her oath of allegiance to the cause, Park asserts, somewhat ruefully, “We buried our youth in the tomb of history.” The sentiment is at once grim and vivid, much like Shiri.