Shiri (US - DVD R1)
Chris Gould continues his exploration of Korean cinema with this 1999 feature...
Ryu (Han Suk-kyu, The Scarlet Letter) and Lee (Song Kang-ho, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) are two South Korean agents hot on the trail of a deadly female assassin from North Korea. The killer, known to them as Hee, is a sniper of unparalleled skill who has already killed a number of leading government officials. When a South Korean arms dealer contacts Ryu and Lee with the promise of information relating to Hee, she somehow learns of the meeting and eliminates him before he can reveal his secrets. This creates an air of mistrust between the agents, with each suspecting the other of being a mole.
They eventually learn that the arms dealer was attempting to secure a quantity of an experimental binary explosive called CTX, an odourless, colourless liquid that is indistinguishable from water in its normal state, but which becomes highly unstable when exposed to the right environmental conditions. With their inside man gone, the North Koreans must result to more traditional methods to secure the CTX. Their Special 8th Forces, led by Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy), hijack a convoy carrying a supply of the explosive. They plan to use it to blow up a soccer stadium where the leaders of both North and South Korea have gathered under the banner of reunification. To complicate matters further, Ryu has to contend with his fiancée Hyun (Kim Yoon-jin, of TV’s Lost), who is a recovering alcoholic.
This is about as much detail as I can go into without giving away any of the major plot-twists, although to be fair most of them are so telegraphed that any reasonably observant individual will see them coming a mile away. The film ‘borrows’ heavily from American and Hong Kong cinema, with kinetic, bullet-ridden action scenes and tense ‘race against the clock’ sequences, but it’s all pretty standard stuff (right down to the way in which a single pistol-wielding individual is able to take out an entire army of machine gun toting Special Forces operatives). Surprisingly there’s aren’t as many action sequences as one might expect, and some of the camerawork during the shootouts makes The Bourne Supremacy look like still photography by comparison, so erratic is the movement. It seems the director wanted to use handheld cameras to lend a more realistic feeling to the scenes, but the violent camera moves makes it all-but impossible to follow the action. It’s a pity, as it mars the otherwise entertaining fire-fights.
On a positive note, performances from the principal cast are solid, with a standout turn from veteran Korean actor Choi Min-sik as the leader of the North Korean forces. Some of you will recognise Choi from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, perhaps the most (in)famous film to come out of Korea to date. Other notable actors include Song Kang-ho, who appeared in both Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (although he only had a cameo in the latter film), and Kim Yoon-jin, who is arguably the most recognisable face in the film (at least to Western audiences). This is largely due to the fact that Kim can currently be seen playing the part of Sun Kwon on the hit television series Lost. I’m unfamiliar with leading man Han Suk-kyu, but he does a good job as an agent torn between his duty to protect his country and his love for his woman.
We’re treated to a pleasing anamorphic widescreen transfer in the film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colour rendition is excellent—with particularly natural flesh tones—and contrast is very pleasing for a relatively low budget film of Asian origin. I also found black levels suitably inky, but not at the expense of shadow detail, which remains good throughout. I’m afraid it’s not all good news though. The image is a little soft throughout the entirety of the proceedings—although the absence of any discernable edge enhancement is pleasing—and there are numerous film artefacts littering the print. None of these are particularly distracting in their own right, but the frequency with which the little nicks and white specs show up is rather alarming. Even with that said this is still a fine effort when you consider the source material, and the good definitely outweighs the bad.
Sony Pictures (nee Columbia Tri-Star) delivers Shiri with Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in the original Korean, along with English and French dubs. The Korean track is fairly lively, especially during the action scenes. When all hell breaks loose the sound of gunfire can be heard ricocheting around the soundstage, creating an immersive experience for the listener. The subtleties are also handled well, with the sound of rainfall lending just the right atmosphere to the more tender moments between Ryu and Hyun. Dialogue is clear throughout, although it never really moves beyond the centre channel. I was a little disappointed with the volume of the score when compared to the dialogue and effects, but to be honest the entire track is mixed somewhat lower than is normal. The LFE lacks the ‘punch’ one would expect from an action films such as this, and the various gunshots and explosions sound a little flat, but all in all it’s a fairly competent effort.
Subtitles are mostly fine, albeit significantly dumbed down from the original Korean (at least they appear to be). There are a few strange grammatical choices, but nothing terribly distracting. I’m unsure as to whether the subtitles we remastered for this release, or merely ported from the Korean release, but the latter would explain some of the oddities.
The main attraction in this area of the disc is the fifty-four minute ‘The Making of Shiri’ documentary. This making of is far more comprehensive than most of the promotional fluff I've come to expect from UK and American release, covering as it does the full cycle of production. It does start off with a fairly self-congratulatory look at the movie’s success, but given that it was the highest grossing Korean film of all time back in 1999 (even outperforming Titanic at the local box-office) you can forgive the backslapping. The piece moves on to look at financing (Samsung had a heavy hand in that), combat training (which meant paintball sessions for the cast), filming and post-production. If you’ve ever wondered how you blow up a building (or an actress) without sacrificing the real thing, this documentary is the place to look. Another interesting fact on offer is that a large chunk of the budget was spent importing weapons from the United States to lend an air of authenticity to the action scenes. Just don’t watch this documentary before the main feature, or you’ll ruin everything!
A music video for Carol Kidd’s ‘When I Dream’ comes next, and is presented in (dirty) anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 2.0 audio. There’s plenty of footage from the film set to the music (more Kim Yoon-jin can only be a good thing), but I I’m not overly keen on the song. The footage also gives a fair amount of the film’s plot away, so once again it’s probably best to watch the main feature before checking it out.
Finally we have three trailers, for Shiri, The Tailor of Panama and Crimson Rivers. The first and last of these are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, while the Brosnan trailer gets the anamorphic treatment. The Shiri trailer is given a predictably inappropriate American voiceover that does very little to sell the film. Collectively the extras are entertaining, but mostly because of the documentary.
I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to watch Shiri, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by more recent Korean features like Tae Guk Gi, but I found Shiri to be little more than a predictable action-thriller in the style of The Rock (but not as slick). That’s not to say that the film is without its moments, but there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before (and better) by Hollywood. The central theme of reunification is an interesting one, and will undoubtedly resonate with Korean audiences, but for me it wasn’t enough to compensate for the fairly weak plotting. It’s almost as if the film couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and so shoehorned a variety of genres into one unsatisfying package.
Even with that said, Shiri isn’t a bad film; it just doesn’t excel in any of the styles it tries to incorporate. The DVD itself is actually a pretty decent effort, with an above-average visual transfer, capable Dolby Digital soundtrack and exhaustive documentary. Die-hard fans should pick this one up without hesitation, but although it was interesting to see the film that sparked the recent explosion in Korean cinema, I wouldn’t recommend Shiri for your first taste.
Review by Chris Gould
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 9th April 2002
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Korean, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Extras: 'The Making of Shiri', Music Video, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kang Je-gyu
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho, Han Suk-kyu, Kim Yoon-jin
Genre: Action and Drama
Length: 125 minutes
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