Seoul-based police detectives Ryu (Suk-Gyu Han) and Lee (Kang-Ho Song) are on the trail of enigmatic North Korean hitwoman Hee, who is working with a terrorist organisation known as the Special 8th Force. The group seek to bring about the unification of Korea via violent means, and hijack an army convoy carrying the deadly liquid explosive CTX. With the clock ticking before the lethal chemical is used, the pair must find Hee at any cost.
Out-grossing Titanic in its native South Korea in 1999, Shiri is a generic modern action flick, heavily indebted to American movies like Heat and The Rock. But for all its conventional plotting, convoluted situations and flashy style, there’s something quite compulsive about the film. Writer/director Je-gyu Kang balances the action and drama with confidence, and the characters, while not given a massive amount of background, are intriguing and sympathetic. The relationship between Ryu and his girlfriend Hyun (Yun-Jin Kim) is handled rather melodramatically – you just know something bad is going to happen to mess up their blossoming love – but the acting is strong, particularly from Korean heartthrob Suk-Gyu Han and Choi Min-sik, playing head terrorist Park.
The violent set-pieces are restrained in their number but not in their ferocity. The film opens with a gruesome sequence detailing Hee’s training by the North Korean military, as she chops off heads and slits throats with determined abandon, while there’s a blisteringly exciting gun-battle later on that starts in a theatre before spilling bloodily onto the busy streets of Seoul. In general, Kang is a bit too keen to keep his camera constantly moving, but Sung-Bok Kim’s inventive cinematography provides an arresting visual edge.
Kang attempts to give to his film a political dimension, emphasising the economic differences between North and South Korea, while the title derives from a fish that divides its time between the two nations. But this is all approached fairly simplistically, and to be honest, we’ve seen terrorists threaten the safety of a city with stolen explosives so many times before that the political element isn’t hugely important to the suspense. But I guess it’s still good to see an action film-maker interested in something other than blowing people up.
Shiri is too long, takes itself too seriously, and the climax isn’t nearly as exciting as some of the earlier moments. Nevertheless, the film wears its influences proudly on its sleeve and entertains with conviction.
South Korean writer/director responsible for two of his country’s most successful films, the action thriller Shiri and the harrowing war drama Brotherhood. Also made the ghost story Gingko Bed, and owns the production company KJG Films.