Many a film has been called a thinking man's thriller but The Berlin File truly fits the bill by holding up both ends of the claim. To follow its labyrinthine plot, one has to engage both halves of one's brain (trust me, it's worth it). Meanwhile, punctuating the plot at regular intervals are action sequences that deliver a visceral impact while feeling integral to the story. Director Ryoo Seung-wan has a winner on his hands. Don't take my word for it. The film was a major hit in his home of South Korea and deservedly so. This is populist entertainment that is just smart enough to stand out among other entries of its genre.
The film introduces a whole mess of complications up front when a secretive arms deal (is there any other kind?) goes south. North Korean spy, Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) is making a sale to a Russian broker and his client, a Middle Eastern terrorist, when Mossad agents appear and shoot up the party. To make matters worse, the room is under surveillance by South Korean agents led by Jeong Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu). After Pyo narrowly escapes the situation (by leading Jeong on a rough-and-tumble rooftop chase), the question remains as to who sold him out. To help sort out this mystery, the North Korean government sends in a fixer, the gleefully insane Dong Myeong-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum; the director's brother) who quickly identifies Pyo's wife Ryeon Jung-hee (Gianna Jun) as the primary suspect. While Pyo struggles to figure out whether he has been betrayed by his wife or his government, one thing's for certain: he is a loose end that must be tied up.
While The Berlin File certainly owes a debt to any number of modern spy thrillers (the Bourne films and the Mission Impossible series immediately spring to mind), it is impressive how quickly it carves out an identity of its own. It does so by placing an emphasis on its characters rather than the glossy choreography of its action beats. Don't get me wrong. When the film gets going and starts throwing all manner of chases, shootouts and beatdowns at the audience, the effect is palpable. While thoroughly engaging on a technical level, the impact of the constantly escalating action scenes is elevated by the fact that we care about the central mystery and Pyo's plight. Jung Doo-hong, the action choreographer, creates thrilling sequences that threaten to go over the top while maintaining the gritty and downcast tone Ryoo Seung-wan has worked so hard to achieve.
Without a capable cast, this could have ended up being just a clinical and convoluted actioner. Thankfully our central quartet gives the film that final bit of polish it needs to really set itself apart. Gianna Jun quickly earns our sympathy in a deeply conflicted role. She has done things she isn't proud of but her desires are more basic and emotionally driven than initially apparent. Speaking of emotion, Ha Jung-woo occupies the other end of the spectrum. Early familial trauma and a sense of duty have turned him into a stoic machine. He is so focused on what is best for his nation that he forgets to check on what's best for those around him. This detachment gives additional resonance to his gradual awakening during the film. It also helps that he is perfectly built for the brutal beatings that he hands out (and receives). As his South Korean foil, Han Suk-kyu is given less to do but he still carries himself with charm and ease. Pyo is a fairly serious fellow so it falls on Jeong to provide the occasional smartass quip to ease some of the tension. Ryoo Seung-bum rounds out the main cast with what is possibly the film's showiest role. He is a sinister smirking wild card and the film is better for his presence.
One of the most engaging aspects of The Berlin File is just how unpredictable it is. It gives you a reason to root for the North Korean operative (not something you see every day). Rather than demonizing the North Korean government, it actually finds common ground between the rival agents by presenting both of them as dedicated soldiers following antiquated rules in a system that no longer rewards loyalty. It finds victory in defeat and even manages to strike out for new beginnings when it looks like there is nothing left to say. Speaking of which, the film ends in a way that begs for (but doesn't require) a sequel. I don't know if it will ever come to be but consider me sold on it.