The South Korean spy service is getting a grand work-out today, as they have set up a surveillance operation to catch out their Northern neighbours, who are planning to agree a major arms deal with both the Russian gangsters and a Middle Eastern terrorist group here in Berlin. Obviously the West, including American’s C.I.A., are taking an interest too, but as the South Korean technology lets them down and the spies cannot hear what is happening in the hotel room in question, suddenly the situation is embroiled with confusion as a gun battle breaks out. But is Pyongyang's leading agent, Pyo Jong-song (Ha Jung-woo) responsible for the chaos, or have there been outside influences at work?
Korea is in some ways a divided nation, much like Berlin's East and West Germany was, and as such a place where the Cold War never really ended, but few of the South's burgeoning movie industry's output embraced that dichotomy quite as enthusiastically as director Ryoo Seung-wan did with The Berlin File. This was not so much a throwback to the espionage movies of old, though its globetrotting nature did bring up that issue, as it was a response to what had become two very big hits from across the Pacific, the Jason Bourne franchise and the then-recent version of John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which dropped an almighty hint by referencing his literary efforts. If you wished for that film to have one movie to represent, it would probably not be this.
However, if you had been impressed with South Korea's wholehearted embrace of the possibilities of the action flick, then you would get along with this a lot better, blithely mixing the sober, paranoid world of Cold War agents and jazzing them up with typically madcap action sequences of a variety that nobody in Hollywood was considering. If that sounded like two great tastes that tasted terrible together, it may have taken the crunching gear changes from murderous thriller to tearjerking drama, but this was par for the course for a rich and full night out at the pictures in South Korea, and it more aptly could be described as a serious suspense effort with delirious kinetic sequences, of them orbiting around that grim-faced centre of Ha and his hapless translator wife (My Sassy Girl herself, Jeon Ji Hyun).
She, Ryun Jung-hee, has been ordered by the powers that be back in the North to act as a sexual plaything for a horrible German official, and when she returns to her husband he is indifferent to her: it's all in the service of the glorious party, and their dear leader. Essentially it wondered what would happen if Bourne was a nasty piece of work, sure, he kills people as easy as breathing, but we're never worried he is killing the wrong people as we are uncertain of here. There's no doubt the arms deal would be better off not happening, yet as shadowy forces start pointing fingers it's not so easy for Ha to counter the ones pointing at him as Northern asset swiftly turned Northern liability, and he found he was not able to trust Ryun, never mind his country of origin who set the Arab terrorists after him.
That said, and here is where the desire from both ends of Korea to be reunited springs up, Ha may have one ally after all, the Southern agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu), a slick operator who is waking up to the idea that he is now caught in the middle of a potentially extremely damaging international incident if he is not able to contain the mayhem. Naturally, it's going to take a lot for Ha to be convinced that he is backing the wrong horse, but two things persuade him, the murder of a supposedly defecting Northern Ambassador, and, well, the fact that all these gun-toting heavies now want to kill him and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure he and the now pregnant Ryun are executed. Being Eastern, there was no time for niceties as allowing sympathetic characters the chance to survive when there was a tearjerking moment possible, so it was best not to expect the Hollywood ideal of storytelling, yet if this was a complex yarn on the surface, those action setpieces were so over the top they lifted the whole project to a heightened air of craziness, as if to ask, what the Hell are we fighting for? Music by Jo Yeong-wook.