I have reviewed just under 750 DVDs for DVDTalk. I've seen great movies and terrible movies. I've seen movies that didn't make any sense, where plot points and character motivations didn't track, where the filmmakers struggled to convey crucial information in terms of understanding the film. In any case, I don't like giving up on a review title (the home video equivalent of "walking out"). Yet -- and it probably comes down to my own limited knowledge of the political state of South Korea -- I have never seen a film that confused me as consistently as The Berlin File. This spy thriller, which relies on the audience's understanding of the angle each of its numerous characters is coming from, is certainly well-made; I don't believe my failure to follow it stems from the filmmaking. At the same time, a person must know their limitations, and the thirtieth time I found myself rewinding to try and make sense of a development, I felt it was time to throw in the towel.
What little I managed to gather, story-wise: an arms deal involving a Russian, an Arab, and a mysterious third party suspected to be North Korean is interrupted by a member of the Israeli Mossad. The ensuing gunfight is a big problem for the Korean NIS agent Jin-soo Jeong (Suk-kyu Han), whose team has spent months following leads and tracking targets, only for all of the suspects to get away. Jin-soo focuses on the "ghost", who is actually Jong-Seong Pyo (Jung-woo Ha), an international spy. Jong-Seong, meanwhile, knows that the appearance of the Mossad suggests there's a leak in his own organization, and one of the most likely culprits is his wife, Jung-hee Ryeon (Gianna Jun). With a deadly assassin waiting in the wings, Jong-Seong goes about trying to find the mole before the higher ups have everyone snuffed.
When boiled down to its base elements -- a spy searches for a leak while a cop pursues him -- doesn't sound that tricky to follow. However, The Berlin File is thick with detail, rooted in real-world tensions and political allegiances. Pair that with filmmakers who (rightly) assume their audience will understand rather than laboriously explaining everything or dumbing their conflict down, and the language barrier (thick accents can make unsubtitled English portions of the film hard to follow), and you've got a perfect recipe for a film that probably plays much better in its home country than it does outside of it. Ultimately, the most crucial missing element appears to be a sense of the political environment in South Korea; tension and atmosphere that locals would probably be well-aware of are referenced but not explained.
The one thing that doesn't require any translation or explanation is the action, and director Seung-wan Ryoo strikes the proper balance between speed and coherency. Jong-Seong's spy training allows him to disable attackers with great speed and minimal physical effort, constantly dispatching everyday police officers and other attackers with a couple of quick, sharp jabs. These swift combat beats are executed with equal amounts of clarity and intensity; no shaky cam to complain about here, and the cuts are fast, but not too fast. Ryoo also does a good job of working the environment into action sequences, including a chase in a train tunnel which is briefly swayed by the wind of the train flying past. Despite my struggle to understand the movie, he conveys certain bits of information with great directorial economy, such as a cell phone a person has pretended to hang up being used as a microphone, seen through the underside of a glass table.
Whether it's the way the information is being discussed, my current knowledge of and / or my ability to follow real-world Korean political alliances (extremely minimal), or just the fact that I'm removed from the culture that produced the film, The Berlin File consistently and repeatedly left me wondering what was going on and why. Maybe that's crazy to anyone who followed and enjoyed the film, because I don't see anyone else complaining about the film's labyrinth of double-crossers and turncoats. I believe that this is probably a well-made film, and it's at least thrilling in spurts (I would venture that even if I did follow the film, the amount of detail included here may be excessive), but the story left me stumped.
The Berlin Filearrives with generic "action movie" artwork: Jung-woo Ha firing a gun, with an explosion-ridden cityscape as a backdrop, tinted a steely blue-gray. Big, basic fonts make up the box copy, a clear sign of apathy on the part of a designer. The disc comes in a cheap DVD case and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, The Berlin File looks okay and sounds great on DVD. The image on this disc never quite looks bad, although artifacts are certainly visible during dark scenes, but it also never really resolves into a crisp, 21st century image. Blacks are a little light and sometimes tilt a little toward blue or green, and fine detail is a little lacking. No banding, at least. The train sequence mentioned in the review is pretty spectacular, thundering by with a realistic rumble that will prompt the viewer to push back into their couch or recliner. The action sequence that starts the film is crisp and features nice directional effects. Other bits, like an assault in a bathroom stall and a dingy torture building, have some effective atmospheric touches. The disc contains the original Korean and an English dub in 5.1 and 2.0, and a subtitle track for the Korean audio and on-screen captions, or just the Korean audio (disappointingly, no all-English subtitle track).
A very lengthy making-of documentary (1:23:30) is included. Considering I couldn't quite make heads or tails of the film itself, I only skimmed this feature, but it seemed in keeping with most Asian behind-the-scenes pieces, which tend to be a little dry, with many of the interviews done either on the set or during the film's promotional junket. A reel of deleted scenes (10:10) is also included.
A glance at other reviews suggests that The Berlin File is well-liked by those who understood it. Hell, I even liked parts of it, despite my inability to follow it. As I have to give the film some sort of rating, I will select rent it, with the provision that I was unable to fully experience the film.
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