[6 January 2014]
Action films tend to struggle with balancing two modes: 1. the action setpieces, which nearly everyone in the audience has come to see and; 2. the delivery of plot exposition in order to create a context for the flurry of fists and bullets that is as compelling as the action scenes themselves. A general rule of mainstream action films is that at least one of these modes must be severely mishandled. Watching The Berlin File, a Korean production that leans heavily on Western genre tropes and Hollywood film grammar, the struggle to balance coherence with satisfying action remains evident throughout.
Roger Corman, patron saint of the B-movie, advised filmmakers to shoot at least a few takes of the main character holding a telephone with their mouth obscured, so that expositional dialogue could be dubbed in later. The Berlin File, which arrives on DVD from CJ Entertainment with only the option to choose between the original Korean and a laughable English dub, with no subtitles, intermittently deploys this principle as characters listen to alternately incriminating and demystifying information delivered via pocket recorders or on cell phone conversations.
Ultimately, who cares who’s setting up who? The picture opens, as action films are obligated to, with a rooftop-spanning setpiece that introduces Jong-seong Pyo (Jung-woo Ha) as a double agent for the North Korean government caught in the middle of an illegal arms deal that goes wrong. His status comes into question as a ruthless fellow agent (Seung-bum Ryoo) is dispatched to identify the leak in his operation, eventually drawing in Pyo’s wife Ryun (Ji-hyun Jeon), an interpreter at the North Korean embassy. The standard games of cat and mouse ensue, with twists involving secret bank accounts holding millions, the late Jong-Il Kim, and a secret pregnancy.
The funny thing about action films like The Berlin File which choose to spend so much time waffling around on matters of exposition and offshore bank accounts in between fistfights is that the particulars of the narrative hardly ever make a difference in one’s enjoyment of the picture as a whole. Many great action films have wonderful, twisty narratives with colorful side characters in addition to well-crafted setpieces (the Western canon includes Ronin and Bullitt). This film’s government fixer, Dong, is indeed revealed to be a player within a larger North Korean conspiracy, but the manic energy of Ryoo’s performance and his sadistic expressions during the climactic scenes indicate that for all that it matters to these characters, he might be acting on his own sociopathic whims.
Not to mention the basic principle that exposition must be convincing, and although much of it has been given over to the capable and assured actor Suk-kyu Han, on the opposite end of the information deluge stands always Ha, a performer of few expressions on par with a Liam Hemsworth. To Ha’s credit, Liam Hemsworth has never pulled off anything like the stairwell fight scenes that seem to be a specialty of agent Pyo’s, particularly a late chase in which he leapfrogs across flights to catch up with a descending elevator. The use of a blank office building to create a striking visual like the top-down view of Pyo, jumping back and forth and down a dozen stories, reminds us the sort of circumstances with which action filmmakers typically have to make do: trying to replicate a Hollywood blockbuster with the budget of a two-week independent shoot.
Yet there are moments of deliberate and effective action in The Berlin File, though it takes far too long after the opening sequence to return to similarly thrilling heights. The major action centerpiece, in which Pyo and Ryun evade an assassination attempt at their home, crosscuts between the tight quarters of their apartment where Pyo fends off the attackers as Ryun tries to clamber across fire escapes and rooftops to escape. It’s the The Bourne Supremacy by way of Peking Opera Blues. That is, until a limited effects budget rears its head in the scene’s CGI-smothered climax as a certain glass-shattering stunt proves too difficult to render with practical trickery. What starts off as a worthy crescendo for a middling action picture ends up merely aping the worst bit of Quantum of Solace - and it unfortunately never gets better.
This review has spent some time discussing the manner in which The Berlin File chooses to deliver exposition, and that may seem like a counter-intuitive angle to take when reviewing action cinema. But the film draws the question on itself, and in no small part during the extended, wordless climax that sees Pyo and Dong first on opposite sides of a firefight, then chasing each other through tall grass, and eventually a bare-knuckles brawl to the death on the beachside. Substitute a more interesting performer for Ha, his boot stamping across Ryoo’s smug sneer for eternity, and you have the basic appeal of this picture. Now, would you like to hear more about North Korea’s credit scam?
A making-of featurette is the lone supplement on this DVD, but it’s a substantial one, delving into Ryoo’s direction with over an hour of on-set footage depicting the construction of the action scenes and providing insight from the principal cast. It’s the sort of feature that should be a given on all action DVDs, yet remains an uncommon treat.