Shiri review

:. Director: Je-kyu Kang
:. Starring: Suk-kyu Han, Min-sik Choi
:. Running Time: 2:04
:. Year: 1999
:. Country: South-Korea


Nearly three years after its release in Korea, the American public can discover Shiri, a nervous and efficient action film from Kang Je-Kyu. Finding immediate success in Korea, Shiri made history by reaching the top of the box office, thus dethroning Titanic as the all-time champion.

Hee (Kim Yoon-Jin) is mysterious young woman working for the North Korean special services. A highly trained sniper and assassin, she executes public men in South Korea and always manages to disappear despite being tracked by South Korean agents. Lee (Song Kang-Ho) and Ryu (Han Suk-Kyu) are the best of the best. After several years of absences Hee reappears in Seoul, and these two are in charge of apprehending her. The presence of a dangerous explosive hidden by Hee and her partners in Seoul will lead to another confrontation between Lee, Ryu and Hee.

While it much resembles a Hong Kong action film (by remarkable shootings) some elements are also borrowed from Hollywood flicks such as disaster movies as well as terrorists. The heart of the film is however Korean, taking its roots in a drama that has divided the nation since the Second World War. In Shiri, the drama is symbolized by the love story between a North-Korean woman and a South-Korean man and by the title Shiri, an exclusively Korean fish that just like this problem goes back to the Cold War.

Admittedly, this subject is not covered with the sensitivity of Park Chan-Wook's Joint Security Area (2000). While Shiri is filled with inconsistencies and lacks finesse, it is nevertheless a product of this tragic separation.

One can reproach the film for showing caricatured North-Korean terrorists and for falling into stereotypes where a malicious and aggressive North tries to crush a brave and pacifist South. This Manicheanism is reminiscent of the worst of Hollywood's stereotypes of communists/Asians/terrorists. It's found in the excessively violent opening scenes and certainly nourishes this complaint.

Fortunately, Kang redeems himself at the end of film with a formidable scene that comes to dissipate our fears. Park, in a remarkable tirade, exposes his intentions and the ambitions that justify his revolt: Park and Hee do not work on behalf of North Korea, but for the unification of Korea and are trying to solve what fifty years of diplomacy and corrupt politicians couldn't achieve. This touching, original and well-acted scene counterbalances the aggressiveness of the first images. The final soccer game is also a sign of a new easing of North-South relations.

As such the characters, who are at first very flimsy like in most big action films, tend to develop here as the intrigue rebounds—though remaining very far from realism.

The success of Shiri signals the vitality of Asian cinema, which today meets an increasingly larger audience. It also puts a country on the cinematic map that resists a Hollywood invasion thanks to a law on quotas (the obligation for Korean theaters to play domestic films for a certain number of days). Professionals are currently trying hard to preserve that regulation against multilateral economic agreements. Indeed, this law assures a decent market share to domestic movies: in 2001, Korean cinema amounted to 50% of the local distribution, particularly boosted by the success of another crime drama, Friend. While one can object that this diminishes box office receipts as well as the risks tied to protectionism, it also allows for the survival of domestic cinema unlike a country like Canada with only a 2.5% domestic market share.

Shiri and its brothers show the large potential of Korean cinema that despite its highs and lows, must be supported to be kept alive since it remains the best arm against the excess of Hollywood. Korean screenwriters like Kang must continue to fight as they did in the past to not allow economic globalization that crushes national movie industries and to preserve, somewhat paradoxically, the liberty of choice by the constraint of an anti-liberal law

In this vein they had a spectacular strike in 1999 and 5 of them created a production company called EGG films. We can certainly wish them to persevere—so that everyone in Korea can continue to benefit from a cultural alternative. And so that in the U.S., one can see more films like Shiri.

  Laurent Ziliani

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