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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘Shiri’ (1999): A Korean Take on 1990s Hollywood Action


Directed by: Kang Je-gyu || Produced by: Byeon Moo-rim, Lee Kwan-hak

Screenplay by: Kang Je-gyu || Starring: Han Suk-kyu, Choi Min-sik, Yunjin Kim, Song Kang-ho, Yoon Joo-sang, Park Yong-woo, Johnny Kim, Lee Seung-shin

Music by: Lee Dong-joon || Cinematography by: Kim Seong-bok || Edited by: Park Gok-ji || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean

Running Time: 125 minutes

Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri is one of the most important Korean films of the past 20 years, arguably more so than even fan-favorites like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) or Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), in that it set the stage for all the modern greats of the new Korean industry in the 2000s and 2010s that followed. It was one of Korea’s first major blockbusters after the country’s economic boom of the early and mid-1990s, and pays tribute to the American action-thrillers of the same time period, as well as John Woo’s earlier Hong Kong filmography (e.g. A Better Tomorrow [1986], The Killer [1989], Hard-Boiled [1992]).

Lead Han Suk-kyu takes cover as North Korean spies open fire.

In many ways, Shiri may turn off contemporary Korean-cinema die-hards given these numerous and obvious non-Korean homages. Though the story hits close to home for any Korean (the spy-narrative concerns North Korean terrorists and reunification), everything about the direction and action cinematography feels Westernized, and if not that, it recalls John Woo. Shiri came out in a time when the new millennium Korean cinema hadn’t quite solidified yet (it was 1999 after all…). This was just the start of Korean cinema coming into its own in the modern age.

With that in mind, Shiri’s script is not as polished as many of Park’s, Bong’s, or other later Korean directors’ films would be, nor is its direction especially patient. Shiri means to pay homage to American “high-octane” thrillers like Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994), and even 1980s pictures like Die Hard (1988) to a lesser extent, and it does so with great passion and extreme prejudice. To that end, just because it feels more than a little Americanized doesn’t mean it’s bad or artistically compromised in any sense of the word. Shiri is incredibly fun and very, very action-packed. The gunshots are loud as hell (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat [1995] perhaps?) and the characters’ passions are even louder. The characters themselves are merely stock archetypes and you can see the plot twists coming a mile away, but who cares when these characters and their spy-adventure is this much fun?

The narrative follows a diabolical North Korean plot to bomb several locations throughout Seoul and push the two Korean states into full-scale war. Working against them are our heroes Han Suk-kyu and, of course, now prolific veteran Song Kang-ho. American viewers will recognize later LOST (2004-2010) alumna Yunjin Kim, who plays a pivotal role on both sides of the conflict (I’ll give you three guesses what that is) and Choi Min-sik from Oldboy plays the lead bad. What’s great about this setup and the chaos that ensues is how pitch-perfect all these character archetypes and melodrama are. The ending is extremely emotional. Shiri may be formulaic and predictable, but it follows that formula to a “T” and executes its action-packed plot with intense, frenetic direction.

In fact, that frenetic camerawork may be the worse part of this otherwise fantastic movie. In what may have been a forerunner of the modern American shaky-cam craze, a technique only Paul Greengrass has mastered, Shiri shakes the absolute shit out of the camera whenever the action gets going. Sometimes its appropriate and capitalizes on the violence’s intensity a la Greengrass, but most of the time, not really. So much of the action in Shiri is amazing and incredibly violent, but it’s oftentimes frustrating because one can barely see what’s going on when the cameras won’t fucking stay still!

Other than that and the predictable but acceptable plot twists, Shiri is a blast to watch. Unfortunately Song isn’t used too much in favor of the Choi, Han, and Yunjin triangle, but each character plays a role in driving the plot forward and everyone’s death or violent actions have weight. Shiri isn’t the same beast as your modern Korean thriller, but I argue that’s not a bad thing at all in this case. Shiri channels vintage American action thrills and John Woo-esque intensity with a distinctly Korean narrative for great results. I can’t recommend an action movie much more.

Main antagonist Choi Min-sik tries to keep police officers at bay in the film’s climax.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Shiri boasts an archetypal but highly effective spy-thriller narrative and cast of characters. Han and Yunjin are the heart and soul of the film, and Choi provides a deliciously evil, ambitious villain. Though often chaotic and overwhelming, the action set-pieces are enthralling and feature great sound-design, impressive stunts, and neat gunplay. The film’s climax is a melodramatic success.

However… Kang won’t stop shaking the fucking camera when the frame demands your attention the most; there are too many repetitive “spy-movie” sound effects (you’ll now what I mean when you hear them); the prologue is so over-the-top and dark it feels comical; non-Hollywood movies need to stop using digital effects.


? Damn, that was awesome… or at least I think it was! Can you rewind that again and slow it down? Did they film these action scenes in the middle of an earthquake?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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