Kim Jee-Woon’s Moving Spy Thriller

Look no further than this sophisticated Korean thriller for a deft blend of period action and suspense. An intriguing cat-and-mouse game between a double agent and Korean resistance fighter unfolds in the spy thriller The Age of Shadows. Director Kim Jee-Woon is probably most famous in the West for I Saw The Devil but this beautifully crafted film will open eyes with its measured drama and stunning action.

Set in the 1920s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the suspenseful espionage movie was named Best Film at the 36th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards. It was also selected as Korea’s Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Language Film. Loosely based on an actual historical figure, the stylish thriller offers excellent set pieces in a richly opulent production.

After its world premiere at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival, the Korean period blockbuster was screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. In the spy tale, Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) fights for Korea’s freedom with fellow comrades in the resistance, including Han Ji Min (The Fatal Encounter) and Shin Sung Rok (The King’s Face), while being chased by Song Kang Ho’s (The Throne) undercover agent and his partner played by Um Tae-Goo (Coin Locker Girl). Lee Byung Hun and Park Hee Soon make cameo appearances in the film.

Korean-born Japanese police officer Lee Jung-Chool (Song Kang Ho) is assigned a mission to infiltrate a Korean resistance group. Serving as a Korean translator for his Japanese superiors on the police force, he’s quickly risen in rank to police bureau captain. The Age of Shadows is fundamentally about Lee Jung-Chool’s ambivalent approach to resisting Japan’s occupation from within its power structure, playing both sides for his own gain. He’s a man with loyalties to both sides, often caught between doing what is right for his native country and what personally benefits his own life.

Instructed by his Japanese superiors to collect intelligence about leaders of the Korean resistance, the policeman approaches their primary fundraiser Kim Woo-Jin (Gong Yoo). Kim Woo-Jin owns a photo shop and poses as an art dealer. Kim Woo-Jin is a key figure in the resistance, second only to its secretive leader, Che-San. The entire resistance operation is centered around Woo-Jin’s business, right under the noses of the Japanese.

… the rare spy movie that hits several heartfelt patriotic notes without feeling cheesy

As he works more with the group, Jung-Chool becomes increasingly dubious about his mission and develops sympathies for the resistance movement against Japan’s occupation. The Japanese government quickly gets suspicious of his loyalty. Jung-Chool is thrown into a life-threatening dilemma when the freedom fighters plan to bomb key Japanese facilities in Seoul with smuggled explosives.

Director Kim Jee-Woon’s film is a stylish, rich thriller with fine performances from its lead cast members. Gorgeously shot like a costume drama, it’s the rare spy movie that hits several heartfelt patriotic notes without feeling cheesy. The action set pieces are expertly staged, including one of the more exciting confrontations on a moving train seen in a long time. There is a wonderful moment late in the film set to Ravel’s Bolero.

The Age of Shadows lays out the morality of its characters without turning them into two-dimensional figures missing real weight and depth. Lee Jung-Chool’s journey from despised collaborator with the Japanese to redemption is skillfully massaged in the taut script. The Age of Shadows draws its inspiring tale of sacrifice and patriotism with care. It’s a slick package of supremely confident Korean storytelling.


The 2016 Korean-language production from Warner Bros. is distributed by CJ Entertainment in the United States. The main feature runs nearly 145 minutes, encoded in competent AVC on a BD-50. The Age of Shadows is presented in a pristine 2.39:1 aspect ratio as intended. This is extremely good-looking 1080P video, razor-sharp with strong definition and pop.

The transfer has been immaculately struck from the film’s clean Digital Intermediate. Strong, deep black levels and consistently excellent contrast make for rich picture quality.

Close-ups demonstrate superior detail in crystal-clear HD. This is unfiltered video shot with precision. Staggeringly crisp while retaining a lush atmosphere suitable for period filmmaking, The Age of Shadows looks impressive on home video.


The preferred audio choice is the film’s native Korean-language soundtrack over the perfunctory English dub. Both language options are heard in dual 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 PCM soundtracks. The surround mixes are fantastic with dynamic sound design and impressive separation.

The period setting comes alive with rear cues heard throughout the soundfield. Range and high-end clarity are excellent, comparable to better Hollywood productions. The audio options will give your subwoofer a workout in several action-packed scenes.

The English subtitles only play when the Korean soundtrack is chosen and can’t be turned off during their playback. I don’t speak Korean myself but have been told these are not mere dubtitles, but a full-fledged English translation from the original Korean dialogue. It seems like a good translation to these ears. The dialogue flows nicely without becoming a wall of text.

The English subtitles display in a white font, remaining inside the scope aspect ratio at all times. Some have complained there are no Korean-language opening credits included, instead using removable subtitles which do not duplicate what was seen in theaters. That can be a problem for international productions when they get released in the United States.


The Age of Shadows is your standard Blu-ray and DVD combo package from CJ Entertainment. It comes in a beautiful slipcover with gold embossing. The set of short interviews and special features aren’t elaborate but give some useful context and background info.

Interviews With The Cast (05:20 in HD) – Brief interviews with several key cast members on their roles, including the actress that plays Yeon. This is in Korean with English subs.

Interview With the Director (21:06 in HD) – Director Kim Jee-Woon discusses how he first envisioned this spy movie, watching films such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, before realizing the different moral struggle of his main protagonist. It’s a relaxed, focused interview that delves into his thoughts important to the movie’s production. Based on a real historical figure in Korea, he explains the creative licenses he took with the material. It is in Korean with English subtitles.

Trailers (All in HD) – The Piper, Veteran, The Priests, Himalayas, Operation Chromite

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  • The Age of Shadows
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A gripping Korean spy thriller set in the 1920s.

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