Living in South Korea as an American is like being in one of those movies where someone wakes up to find that everything in their house is a little off. I can’t walk a mile here without passing ten people wearing Dubs jerseys, fifteen 7/11s, and five bars blasting Rick Ross. Don’t even ask about the Minions merchandise. America is everywhere and nowhere. It’s spooky!
Because America helped with South Korea’s reconstruction after the Korean War, our cultural exports are a big part of the country’s DNA. But South Korea is not America, or an identity-less puppet state of America. Eventually you learn that the “American” things here are, on some level, completely different.
For example, if my fuzzy mental math based on this MPAA report is right, Koreans annually watch about 3 American movies per capita, compared to about 4 in America. The American influence shows up in Korean cinema, which (based on my limited experience) can bear a strong resemblance to Hollywood. There are some common differences: Korean films tend to have more overt family and romantic melodrama, and I have yet to see a Korean movie that ends in 45 minutes of explosions. But by and large the two film cultures are compatible. I don’t mean that Korean movies are Hollywood knockoffs: the Korean auteurs who are popular in the West (Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon) all have their own sensibilities. But they’re playing with genre in ways that are recognizable to us (and, more recently, working within the American film industry).
In 2016, one popular Korean film was Kim Jee-woon’s Age Of Shadows, a period action-noir about the anti-Japanese resistance movement. Financed by Warner Bros, it has tons of Western genre influences: Hitchcockian suspense, neo-noir cinematography and production design, Tarantino’s love of violence and unexpected humor, and John le Carré’s bleak and unpredictable cloak-and-dagger plotting. The last of these is especially clear, and it’s worth noting that le Carré started writing spy novels like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a corrective to what he saw as the hysterical nationalism of James Bond. In his books, both sides of the Iron Curtain are morally bankrupt, and ideals are dead weight.
Le Carré’s Cold War cynicism is one “Western” touchstone I imagine doesn’t translate well here; in talking with native Koreans, I’ve found that the levels of patriotism are a lot higher than in the coastal US, especially among the older generation. There are a few reasons you can point to: South Korea is one of the least ethnically diverse places in the world, and it’s gone from among the poorest countries to among the richest in less than three decades. A huge factor is the subject of Age Of Shadows: the brutal Japanese occupation from 1910-1945 that tried to bury Korean culture through forced migrations, language change, and destruction of historical sites. Now that the country has rebounded, you can see where the sense of pride comes from. Even today, relations between the two countries can be tense, and Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment often go together.
In Age Of Shadows’s conspiratorial plot, there’s a clear moment when the movie stops seeming like a pastiche of its Western influences and reveals itself as something else (spoiler warning!). It’s set at the height of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s. The Korean resistance has its back to the wall, and it’s full of traitors on the Japanese payroll. Fans of Korean cinema will recognize Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer) as Lee Jung-chool, a Korean policeman working for the Japanese occupiers, and Gong Yoo (Train To Busan) as Kim Woo-jin, a high-ranking resistance member posing as an antiques dealer. Jung-chool is good at his job, but he carries a heavy conscience from selling out friends to the Japanese. He and his Japanese partner Hashimoto (Uhm Tae-goo) begin to investigate Woo-jin, but Woo-jin tries to convert Jung-chool to the resistance. Jung-chool plays both sides, growing closer to Woo-jin even as he feeds enough information to Hashimoto to stay in his good graces. Is Jung-chool being played? Who can he really trust?
Then, in a moment where he has to choose, Jung-chool kills Hashimoto and the rest of his police escort! He helps Woo-jin and the resistance get a shipment of bombs to Seoul! Woo-jin is captured! But Jung-chool completes the mission! He puts the bombs in a mansion full of Japanese aristocrats and sends those motherfuckers straight to hell!
Age Of Shadows is a le Carré spy thriller and a nationalistic revenge movie. The double-crosses and murky intrigue are there from beginning to end, and so is the heavy patriotism. It has the look, feel, and narrative structure of a “gritty” “anti-Bond” spy noir, but its themes are flipped. It’s not about the meaningless of war, the impossibility of a better world, or how we’re no better than our worst enemies. It’s about FUCK THE JAPANESE IMPERIALISTS!!!
It’s also about the durability and superiority of Korean culture. Hierarchy is huge in Korea, and Age Of Shadows would have you believe that Koreans are much better at it than the Japanese. In the first scene, Jung-chool’s Japanese cohorts botch an operation that Jung-chool would have completed without a hitch if they had listened to him. Hashimoto is a ruthless villain, but he’s also pointedly incompetent: most of the times he fails, it’s because he neglects Jung-chool’s seniority and expertise. It’s a bizarrely ironic statement of patriotism: even when the task is imprisoning and torturing Korean nationalists, Koreans are better at it than the bungling Japanese. On the flip side, even though the resistance has traitors, the true patriots take up their duties with no hesitation.
American action movies always have one good character who turns out to be a Russian mole or whatever, but Age Of Shadows takes the opposite approach: characters who are compromised turn out to have an insuppressible loyalty. The resistance leader (Lee Byung-hun) at one point says of Jung-chool, “Even a turncoat has only one motherland,” and later, trying to turn Jung-chool, “I don’t trust men’s words. I don’t even trust my own. I just trust in what I must do, and what a person ought to do.” Jung-chool seems to debase himself as a traitor, but in the end, it’s not about his personal glory; it’s about the cause. Maturity isn’t cynicism, it’s a rediscovery of fidelity to Korea.
Given how familiar Age Of Shadows feels, how smoothly its American-style entertainment goes down, it’s not that surprising that many American critics had a different reaction. Watching it isn’t like seeing some weird didactic tract about how Japanese people are bad; it’s first and foremost an entertaining spy movie. It’s closer to Bourne than Battleship Potemkin, which is probably why, skimming Rotten Tomatoes, I see a lot of reviews that say “its story is less important than its action” or that it’s “morally ambiguous,” neither of which I imagine would be true for a Korean audience. For many Westerners, the double-crosses and intrigue will seem to be the bottom line, and Jung-chool’s (and Korea’s) transcendence of the “fog of war” will be lost in translation.
As Hollywood as Age Of Shadows appears, Americans haven’t seen a movie like it. Argo and Bridge Of Spies have hushed phone calls, cryptic messages, and people with popped collars looking over their shoulders, but paranoia is in short supply. They’re based on “inspiring” true stories, and they have unflappable leads that the audience never doubts—calling them “spy movies” is a stretch. (I’m probably the only millennial who loves Bridge Of Spies, but that’s because I accept it as a love letter to American due process laws, not a spy movie.) We’ve come closer to the “patriotic spy” genre with 24, Homeland, and Zero Dark Thirty, but those all make you feel like you need a shower, intentionally or otherwise. The CIA is a bogeyman in the popular imagination, and the idea of a genuine espionage thriller that makes you go, “Hell yeah, America!” is like a Zen koan, hard to fit in your head.
Maybe differences between American and Korean nationalisms cause the gap in understanding. One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Korea was that, unlike the Chinese and Japanese (it was stressed), Koreans are proud of having never invaded another country. Imagine that! American exceptionalism has always been predicated on conquest, and our patriotic genres have followed suit: war, action, and superhero movies. To an American audience, a subgenre that began as anti-patriotic in the West will seem an odd fit for gory nationalistic retribution. For a country that prides itself on its resilience under imperialist pressure, maybe it’s perfect.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. Twitter