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Korean movies are the next big thing in world cinema. However, as we enter the middle part of 2003, this boom in Asian movies will have passed by many of us (though I steadfastly hope that they will gain a wider worldwide acceptance). Perhaps central to the current success of South Korean cinema is Shiri, a movie that, for the uninitiated audience, may easily be mistaken for something from Hollywood or Hong Kong.

That said, there is something culturally Korean that is decidedly different from anything that the two main action movie powerhouses can often deliver. With a few exceptions, Korean movies have an emotional epicentre so sadly lacking from many a Western (or Eastern) actioner. Into this void steps Shiri, a modern thriller that (until Joint Security Area at least, a film that shares many of its themes) knocked Titanic (thank Heavens!) off its perch as the highest grossing Korean film in cinema history.

Shiri - Special Edition
Hee, an exceptional and explosive female assassin, is on the loose in South Korea. Special security agents Ryu (Han Suc-kyu) and Lee (Sung Kang-ho) are despatched to try and stop her but as they try to close in on a high-level conspiracy involving the possible re-unification of the North and South halves of the country, it seems that much higher forces are at work than the simple tracking down of a single assassin.

Agent Ryu is distracted in his work by his impending marriage to Huen (the brittle and beautiful Kim Yoon-jin), a recovering alcoholic bravely battling to beat the bottle, in that he has yet to disclose to his fiancée exactly what he does for a living. As the brutal Park Byu-yon (the marvellous Choi Min-sik) and his 8th Revolutionary Army Special Forces close in on Seoul from north of the Korean peninsula, agents Ryu and Lee have little time to discover the role of experimental explosive ‘CTX’ behind the terrorist action before a catastrophic coup is attempted…

Now, it’s impossible to deny that Shiri is, to a certain extent, derivative. Yet, as I contend, this is not a bad thing so long as the inspiration for the action remains a starting point and not a copycat rendition of the end product. The influence of Michael Mann’s Heat, Luc Besson’s Leon or John Woo’s The Killer can clearly be seen although to say that Shiri slavishly supposes to simply reproduce such films would be wide of the mark.

The persistent use of handheld camera presupposes a poignancy and immediacy to the gunplay that is a million miles away from John Woo, yet a chase through a crowded shopping centre admittedly belies the origin of Heat as an idea. Bullets are indeed aplenty although ballet is not the order of the day as the raw nature of each squib exploding suggests that each wound really hurts and the action is relayed frantically in a first person perspective.

All of which is underpinned by a quite devastating plot twist half way through the narrative (doubtless more attentive viewers will spot it prior to the relevant revelation) in which no one is quite what he (or she) seems.

Yes, Shiri is violent (none so more as evidenced by the opening scenes in which the 8th Revolutionary Army Special Forces undergo their gruesome training on live subjects) but this wonderfully underscores the tender nature of the relationship between Huen and Ryu and how it will affect them as Ryu’s job threatens to consume him.

Such a schizophrenic movie (to Western eyes at least) might pose a problem but, like Korea, this is a movie of two halves, and that is precisely the point. Ample time is afforded the love story as are the action scenes, as indeed are the North and South perspectives on the motives and mechanics of any possible unification. There are a couple of expository longuers that Shiri could easily do without, particularly and most curiously in the final 5 minutes, but these do not affect the overall pacing of the film in too great an extent.

Shiri - Special Edition
The comfortably talented cast maximises the multi-faceted potential of Kang Je-kyu’s spirited direction in which shades of grey are the order of the day rather than the simple brush strokes of black or white 2 dimensional characterisation with Kim Yoon-jin absolutely outstanding as the vulnerable Huen. Choi Min-sik as Park exudes echoes of Leon’s premier bad guy Norman Stansfield but his is a performance powered by aching pathos not amphetamine-fuelled psychosis in essaying the fanatical devotion of Park to his political cause.

An emotive and evocative score a world apart from ordinary action films, including the recurring motif of Carol Kidd’s hauntingly ethereal ballad ‘When I Dream’, reinforces this as an emotional rollercoaster as well as an action experience, seamlessly mixing the light melodrama (not a derogatory term in this sense) with the gunplay mayhem in a way few films dare to attempt and even fewer pull off successfully. In this respect, Shiri is a rare film indeed and all the more worthy of a viewing.

Anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.78:1, as personally overseen by the director who shot the movie at 1.66:1, this is a fine transfer yet it’s certainly not as good as it could have been. Colours are bold, blacks are deep and shadow detail is good in the frequent sequences when black clad SWAT team members creep around silently in the dark.

However, while the abundant use of smoke and dry ice is handled well without pixellation or macro-blocking, the repeated use of heavy blue filters causes the transfer to suffer from grain at key points. Curiously, contrast levels are very effective all the way through except for the very brief scenes in which the football pitch is visible, certain shots giving the impression that the players are running around on green marzipan instead of lush grass. Such inconsistencies last a matter of seconds and shouldn’t prove to be overly distracting but in a side by side comparison with the R1 version, Columbia Tri-Star’s transfer benefits from a high-definition master which irons out these little differences.

English subtitles are available in a nice legible white font. Grammatically and typographically the translation is very accomplished. Occasionally spaces between words are missed out and the lack of full stops as dialogue switches between characters can require a brief time with which to be accustomed but on the whole it’s a decent effort in avoiding heavy-handedness and capturing the nuances of the complex political and personal interplay.

Where the Bitwin R3 truly towers above its North American counterpart is in the availability of audio options. Korean audio is offered in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 guises.

First off, encoded at 784kbps, the DTS is quite superb. Gunfire is crisp from the surrounds, squib detonations have a meaty thump (which, in part, makes the opening training sequences the preserve of those with a strong stomach) and when an undiscovered bomb detonates at the movie’s halfway point the subwoofer gladly rumbles away with great gusto. For those Korean capable among the audience, the dialogue is always clearly defined from the centre speaker in amongst the attendant environmental effects.

Bizarrely, the excellent esoteric score is confined to the front of the soundstage. With the orchestrations being predominantly string based, it’s unusual not to have cellos and the like seeping in from the rear channels. With no apparent rationale behind this decision, the soundstage can be a little hollow at times but it’s not quite enough to affect the film in a great degree.

This is the first time that I’ve really noticed a discernible difference between DTS and ‘regular’ Dolby Digital surround. Encoded at 448kbps, it’s not a bad track by any stretch of the imagination but is does clearly lack the clarity and bass of the higher bitrate format which, in this case, is some way ahead. Once again dialogue is clean and clear from the centre channel and the surrounds get a full workout but the score mystifyingly remains present only from the front of the soundstage.

As 2 channel presentations go, the stereo track is pretty good and a surprising amount of thought has gone into the sound design. Thankfully, dialogue and channel separation are not overwhelmed by booming bass brought on by the regular explosions.

Shiri - Special Edition
Making full use of the available disc space for the film and it’s two 5.1 surround tracks, only cast and crew profiles can be squeezed onto the first disc of this double DVD set.

Alas, those lacking the ability to understand Korean won’t be able to make much sense of these profiles nor are the enormous amount of extra features on the second disc subtitled in English. That said, the following is a rundown of what you can expect.

Shiri: The Director’s Cut is an examination of how this DVD version (presented on disc 1) differs from the theatrical cut. In fact, there’s only a single small scene that separates the two releases (it’s removed from the director’s cut) and it’s easy to see why it has been excised as it doesn’t really make all that much sense in the theatrical release but it’s a neat feature to directly compare and contrast one against the other.

The Making Of Shiri is the stuff of which that all featurettes should be made. Comprehensive in its scope and execution, there’s plenty of on set and behind the scenes footage here which can be contrasted to certain completed sequences. Just about all the important members of cast and crew are featured and it’s frustrating that no English subtitles exist to translate the animated discussions but patience is well rewarded with the abundance of available footage.

Cast And Crew Interviews do not scrimp on the detail either. With a duration of some 30 minutes, principal members of the crew offer their thoughts on their respective involvements in the production. Details may not be deciphered but there’s a wealth of information here which exposes the training undertaken by the cast, along with some of the injuries suffered in the line of fire!

To supplement the above, there is a set of Profiles in English for director Kang Je-kyu and six of the cast. More detailed information is supplied but this is where the translation stops and it’s Korean only once more.

In the same section can be found Music, Dubbing And Recording Interviews which focuses on the sound design artists and how they achieved certain audio effects for the film. There’s an illustration of ADR (or ‘looping’ as it used to be known) demonstrated by Choi Min-sik re-dubbing some of his lines lost during the production.

To follow this are C.G.I., Special Effects And Stunts Interviews in which insights are offered into how some of the gruesome body effects were created from scratch purposefully for the film. If you’ve an interest in the way to recreate the designs behind the opening sequences, this should be your first port of call.

Shiri - Special Edition
Audience And Cast Reviews brings together cast and crew with ordinary member of the moviegoing public to evaluate the success of the film. With the animated expressions on display here it’s pretty obvious that there’s a unanimous thumbs from all concerned but there’s also some focus on the intense popularity of Shiri upon its’ theatrical release which makes the leapfrogging of Titanic in the all-time attendance charts (thank heavens!) all the more understandable.

Building on this is a secondary featurette entitled Broadcast News that sheds light on the media hype that gripped South Korea in 1999.

Production Notes is not quite the norm as this little section illustrates the marathon of publicity junkets and photo opportunities to which the cast, and to a lesser extent the crew, were subjected as the momentum for the film began to build.

The When I Dream Music Video takes Carol Kidd’s beautiful song and edits certain key scenes from the movie into a little promotional reel. Not quite the pop promo as Hollywood would understand it, it’s an interesting little piece and benefits Anglophiles by being in English to reinforce the movie’s emotional impact.

Outtakes are here too. Missed lines and goofs may well be lost on non-native speakers but there’s something intrinsically funny about Choi Min-sik becoming increasingly irate enduring take after take with his pistol failing to fire its blanks for the umpteenth time!

Sadly, the inspiration for the film is covered in What Shiri Symbolises, a text based featurette only in Korean, presumably explaining the significance of the fish and how this motif forms a metaphor for the division of Korea. If ever an English translation was required, this was it.

For those high-tech military hardware buffs among the audience, a Gun Index is provided. Despite being displayed only in Korean text, it’s relatively easy to decode to what the various numerical values relate.

Theatrical Trailers are also here. With one for the Korean market and the other for the Japanese market, it’s intriguing to see how the creators of such fare tailor the product for different cultures.

Tied in with these is a typically over-earnest TV Spot for the Japanese market which again illustrates the various strategies employed by the publicists.

Shiri - Special Edition
Finally, under the banner of Digital Audio Experience is a collection of a DTS trailer and 4 familiar Dolby Digital introductions. Curiously added to a mainstream movie release, these trailers come in very handy when setting up a home cinema system if you’re thinking of tweaking your individual channel settings.

All of the above are accessed by a succession of animated menus which incorporate clips from the film and sections of dialogue from Choi Min-sik which, as far as my extremely limited Korean goes, is taken from antagonist Park’s zealous political diatribe.

Although Shiri is available on Region 1, I contend that Columbia Tri-star’s R3 cousin has the edge. Despite a slightly inferior transfer prone to a couple of minor contrast issues, the Bitwin edition is streets ahead. A vastly superior DTS track (not solely because it’s DTS, it’s simply better designed than the Dolby Digital equivalent), the lack of an awful English dub (DVD designers be praised!), a hatful of interesting extras (most of which are of use even without English subs) and understated but lovingly produced packaging put the R3 on top.

Of course, all this is redundant if the film itself is no good; thankfully this is an absolute belter. An action-based political thriller? A romantic drama? Shiri is able to effectively marshal these strands into a most emotionally engaging movie, worthy of your money in any regional incarnation and an ideal entry point to the ever expanding Korean movie market.