Shiri by Kang Je-Gyu (Review)

This attempt to outdo Hollywood blockbusters ends up looking an awful lot like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Shiri - Kang Je-gyu

There’s been a recent, and very disturbing trend in Hollywood. And no, I’m not referring to all of those “teen” movies (a la Scary Movie et al), or that rash of “comedies” featuring SNL alumni. Rather, I’m referring to the recent trend of Hollywood snapping up the rights of foreign (read Asian) films, butchering the releases, and even working on remakes. They’re doing it with Ring, Shaolin Soccer, Legend of Zu, Akira, and I’m sure there’s more coming down the pipe. I’m not sure if it’s definitive proof that fresh ideas have been all but drained from Hollywood, or if Hollywood feels threatened, or what.

Now Shiri, on the other hand, feels like the exact opposite, a Korean remake of some big Hollywood political thriller. In fact, Shiri was made just so that it could compete with big “foreign” blockbusters. And looking at it, the filmmakers did an admirable job. Gone are the hokey sets, cheesy effects, and melodramatic acting that often seemed de rigueur for Asian action movies (or were some of their most endearing qualities, depending on how you look at it).

Hee is a top North Korean assassin who has been taking out various criminals and politicians. Assigned to her case are two special agents, Ryu and Lee, who have tracked her movements for years, to no avail. A recent rash of assassinations all seem to revolve around a mysterious chemical called CTX, a powerful explosive and source of energy. When a group of rogue North Korean soldiers make off with enough CTX to reduce Seoul to rubble, Ryu and Lee find themselves surrounded by political intrigue.

Why are these North Koreans so intent on foiling plans for reunification? How do they seem to know every move that Ryu and Lee make? And just what does Ryu’s fiancé, Hyun, have to do with all of this? Soon, Ryu and Lee find themselves unable to trust anyone, including each other, as the terrorists make one deadly move after another.

Shiri has loads of action, romance, espionage, political machinations involving the reunification of North and South Korea (always a touchy subject), and a double-cross or two. And it’s got a slick, modern look. Unfortunately, it comes off feeling like the Korean remake of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Part of me wants to congratulate director Kang for making such a successful film (Shiri broke box office records in South Korea, and could be considered that country’s Titanic. It’s wonderful to see other countries make movies that stand up to the wave of American films that flood and snuff out their box offices. And it’s even more impressive when you learn they did it all for $5 million dollars.

But it all feels so, well, slick and modern. This is as “westernized” an Asian movie as I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Gone are all of those excesses, those gritty, manic quirks that I love so much about Asian cinema. You could throw Ben Affleck and George Clooney in there, move the plot to Washington D.C. or New York, and you have any disposable politically-charged thriller that’s come out in the past 5 years.

There are some exciting moments, and the movie does take risks that most Hollywood movies wouldn’t take (love the exploding suicide pills). The big shootout between the South Korean agents and the North Korean soldiers is great to watch, reminiscent of the free-for-all in Michael Mann’s Heat. But that’s just it… this movie feels like one I’ve seen before. At times, it even feels measured and uneventful, a real no-no when you’re trying to pull off a thriller. There are parts of this movie that feel like blatant attempts to strengthen weak characters (ie Ryu, Hyun, and Lee’s night on the town), or moments meant to make us feel for these bland individuals. Even when Kang tries to up the emotional ante with a surprise “twist,” he insists on prolonging it even though an attentive viewer would’ve figured it out 30 minutes earlier, and successfully snuffs it out.

I love to see foreign movies that can compete with big Hollywood movies, but not when it’s like this, not when it feels like they give into the big budget way of doing things. The thing that pulled me into Asian cinema was how un-Hollywood it was; you saw things in those films that you just didn’t see elsewhere. Give me an example of a film that has as much heart and firepower as The Killer, as much joie-de-vivre as Chungking Express, as much excitement as Police Story. Nothing compares to them. But if you ask me to give an example of a film that compares to Shiri, well, I hope you have some time because we’ll be there for awhile.

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