The Berlin File – EIFF review

The Berlin File

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Film critic Alistair Harkness gives his verdict on South Korean spy thriller The Berlin File, screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Synopsis: Exposed during an illegal arms trade gone wrong in Berlin, a North Korean “ghost” agent finds himself in the crosshairs of an international manhunt. Was he betrayed by his wife or his country? He must prepare to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The Berlin File

Age rating: TBC
Running time: 120 min
Directed by: Seung-wan Ryoo
Starring: Jung-woo Ha, Suk-kyu Han, Seung-beom Ryu

Cineworld, Edinburgh, today (25 June), 6pm – more info

★★★

It seems oddly appropriate that a Berlin-set, South Korean-produced espionage thriller should feel like a movie cleaved in two.

Putting a Korean spin on classic Cold War spy films of old, The Berlin File spends much of its first hour laying out a convoluted – if not particularly sophisticated – tale of deception and betrayal, before unleashing a full-scale, beautifully choreographed action assault in its second.

Such unevenness makes it less immediately entertaining than a movie featuring Mission: Impossible-style exploding phones and low-tech Bond gadgets (one sinister North Korean bad guy uses a poison-dispensing pen to off his targets) really should.

It’s also hard not to scoff at the corniness of some of dialogue and performances (particularly the English-language ones) when the film is also clearly attempting to tap into the Euro-moodiness of the Bourne films.

Nevertheless, once director Seung-wan Ryoo – who made the impressively punchy The City of Violence a few years back – is done laying the ground work for his preposterously plotted film (which sees various intelligence community operatives attempting to get their hands on a secret bank account allegedly belonging to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il), he certainly doesn’t stint on delivering maximum mayhem.

Indeed, his strengths as a director of propulsive action come to the fore in a series of fluidly choreographed sequences that genuinely up the ante of the sort of close quarters, hand-to-hand combat and bullet-spraying gun play that has become ubiquitous in action cinema.

As he pinballs his antihero – a betrayed NK intelligence agent played with commanding authority by Ha Jung-woo – around the city, across rooftops and, at one point, off the side of a building (breaking his fall as he goes with plate glass and steel girders), Ryoo delivers a useful blueprint for anyone looking to make action scenes count again.

Originally published in The Scotsman

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Nick is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor, covering music, pop culture and comedy.