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A masterpiece of Korean cinema
on February 27, 2004
I was excited about having a chance to watch this movie; after all, Shiri became South Korea's most successful and most-watched film of all time, surpassing even the mighty Titanic. It seems only right that a Korean film should hold the box office record in South Korea. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from Shiri; I knew it was an action film involving a deadly female assassin from North Korea and that the plot revolved in some way around the idea of Korean unification, but that was the extent of my knowledge going in. Shiri definitely delivers, offering up heaping platefuls of suspense, action, and gritty violence; it also, much to its credit, carries an emotional payload of love, friendship, betrayal, duty, all of the angst that surrounds the question of unification. The special effects are well done (Shiri had a budget of only five million dollars, but that qualifies as a big budget in Korean cinema), the cinematography is beautiful, and the overall presentation of the film serves to touch the viewer in any number of ways.
I do have to admit that I found parts of the film somewhat confusing, especially early on; I also had trouble keeping some of the characters straight in my mind. I think this is explained by my American viewpoint and the fact that I could not devote all of my attention to the events on the screen as I had to depend on subtitles to follow the dialogue. Additionally, the whole theme of reunification obviously doesn't impact me the way it would a Korean audience. Even I can see how ambitious and daring the plot of this film was, though; this is truly a film borne out of the very soul of Korea.
Hee is North Korea's most infamous assassin, and as the movie opens, she seems to have reappeared for the first time in a year. South Korean special agents Ryu and Lee have been charged with the task of ending her reign of terror; this is no easy job, as she has left a trail of very important corpses right under their noses for years. As it turns out, Hee is not working alone now, and this only complicates things. Working alongside her now is a special, seemingly rogue element of the North Korean military. This group manages to steal a number of containers of a new super-incendiary device called CTX, and they stash these awful weapons throughout the metropolis of Seoul. These revolutionaries make demands that cannot be met, but their true goal is only made manifest in the final stages of the film. Against this backdrop, you have a highly visible cultural joining of both Koreas in the form of a soccer game in Seoul, the symbolism of which is made most obvious by the mutual attendance of the leaders of both Koreas. For special agents Ryu and Lee, the job of finding and eliminating the infamous Hee takes on incredibly emotional dimensions neither man could ever have anticipated, and it is on this highly personal level that the true heart of the movie plays out.
A 1999 film offering two distinct ideas about Korean reunification was definitely a risk for South Korean filmmaker Kang Je-Gyu. Of course, the greater the risk, the larger the possible reward, and this film proved the very opposite of divisive. South Koreans flocked to see Shiri, it is said that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il arranged to see a stolen copy of it, and the South Korean government itself treated foreign diplomats to a free screening of this historic block-buster. Those who crave action and realistic violence will find much to their liking here, but it is Shiri's surprisingly powerful emotional impact that really sets the film apart as something special.