As soon as “The Berlin File” takes flight with its exhilarating action set pieces, memories of any muddles evaporate amid the tension and vivid engagement with settings, from courtyards to fields.

The Berlin File is evidence of a visual master working with a budget that allows him some breathing room for some choice sequences. Retrospectively cold war in tone this provides action more brutal than balletic and the promise of a Bourne-style franchise in the making. The movie offers just about all you could ask of a genre flick: poisonings, defections, a secret North Korean bank account, gloriously choreographed fights that go insanely over the top, febrile tension and doomy romance . As soon as “The Berlin File” takes flight with its exhilarating action set pieces, memories of any muddles evaporate amid the tension and vivid engagement with settings, from courtyards to fields. The plot may be a challenge to figure out, but this crisply directed spy thriller from Korea holds your attention through its overall smooth professionalism.

Spy thriller from Korea holds your attention.

Ha Jung-woo as Pyo Jong-seong
Han Suk-kyu as Jung Jin-soo
Ryoo Seung-bum as Dong Myung-soo
Jun Ji-hyun as Ryun Jung-hee
Lee Geung-young as Ri Hak-soo, North Korean ambassador

Solid Cold War-style spy thriller, with North Korea pinch-hitting for the Soviet Union.

After a tense illegal arms deal in a Berlin hotel involving North Korean spy Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo), a Russian broker, and a Middle Eastern terrorist goes wrong when disrupted by unknown assailants, Pyo narrowly escapes but encounters morass of conflicting evidence that may reveal why he was set up.

Also investigating the failed weapons sale, embattled South Korean intelligence agent Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu) goes after Pyo to uncover his identity, but is left trying to decode whether the North Korean “ghost” agent (whose information cannot be found on any intelligence database) is a double agent or taking the fall for a more insidious plot. Finding himself embroiled in a vast international conspiracy, Jung must determine the North’s role in the deal, as well as the potential involvement of the American CIA, Israel’s Mossad, international terrorist organizations, and any other covert operatives lurking in Berlin’s polyglot underworld.

Confronting the possibility of a double agent within Berlin’s North Korean embassy where his wife Ryun Jung-hee (Jun Ji-hyun) is a translator, Pyo discovers that Pyongyang security authorities have dispatched ruthless fixer Dong Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum) to sort out potentially conflicting loyalties at the consulate. Dong’s investigation quickly implicates Ryun and he gives Pyo just 48 hours to incriminate his wife, who is suspected of leaking information on the arms deal to South Korean agents trying to gain access to a secret multibillion-dollar bank account controlled by Pyongyang authorities.

Despite an apparently loveless marriage, Pyo is reluctant to betray Ryun, particularly after she discloses she’s pregnant. He senses that she was set up by Dong and his father to gain favor with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But when the North Korean ambassador makes an attempt to defect to the West, Pyo becomes incriminated as well. Narrowly escaping an assassination squad dispatched by Dong, Ryun and Pyo go on the run, with the rival Korean intelligence agencies closing in fast.

After escaping Dong contacts the brother of the middle eastern terrorist Abdul, who enlists his help after claiming the Pyo was responsible for ratting out his brother to the Israeli Mossad. Eventually Pyo and Ryun are cornered and captured by the Arabs who tracked them down following Dong’s tips, but saved by a following Jung. Despite Pyo breaking free from the Arabs and killing one of their men, they still manage to get away with a captured Ryun. Jung and Pyo eventually enter a jagged alliance where Pyo not only has to rescue his wife but also defect to the South Koreans.

Eventually Pyo and Jung track down a safehouse where Dong and Abdul await. Pyo gets captured again but reveals via tape recorder that Dong is actually responsible for the whole set up of the deal. Angered by this Abdul and his men turns on Dong but are interrupted by a flash grenade fired by Jung. In the chaos Abdul and his men and Dong’s men are killed in a three way shootout between Pyo, Jung, Dong, the North Koreans and the Arabs. Dong and Pyo face each other in an ultimate showdown that culminates in Pyo killing Dong with an injection. Unfortunately, his wife Ryun gets caught in the crossfire and dies from her wound.

Jung reports to headquarters, where he learns that Dong’s father has covered up the scandal using Pyo as a scapegoat. Jung, although frustrated at the internal corruption, has his hands tied. He meets with Pyo and cautions him to go into hiding and live the rest of his life “looking over [his] shoulder”, as both the North and South Korean forces governments him a traitor and fugitive. In the last scene, Pyo can be seen inside an airport at an unspecified time later, having called Dong’s father to tell him that he’s coming. Pyo books a ticket to Vladivostok, the site of a new gas pipeline deal between North and South Korea.

Movie Information

Release date: January 31, 2013 (South Korea)
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Music by: Jo Yeong-wook
Box office: US$48,979,656
Language: Korean

Peter Ahn

Peter Ahn

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