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.
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