To paraphrase Mugatu from "Zoolander," Berlin, the setting for the enjoyable sub-“Bourne” Korean action flick “The Berlin File,” is so hot right now. No less than David Bowie has returned to the city in his seemingly dropped-from-the-sky comeback single, “Where Are We Now?” Shortly thereafter came the news that a Bowie-and-Iggy-do-Berlin film was in development. The Berlin International Film Festival is still underway, and made major news with the debut of the “international cut” of Wong Kar-Wai’s forever-in-the-works “The Grandmaster.”
So the time is right for the release of South Korean director Ryoo Seung-wan’s “The Berlin File,” a mostly fun, too often silly, and rather inconsequential potboiler whose European locale seems rather novel, at least at film’s start. Taking a story dealing with North and South Korea and transferring it to Europe is a clever move on the part of Seung-Wan, the director behind international hits “The Unjust” and “The City of Violence.” It renders an air of Cold War tension to what would otherwise be a paint-by-numbers tale of a spy, his wife, and the secrets that could ruin them both.
There can be no disputing the fact that 'File' was Bourne-this way, in style and content. But unlike the Robert Ludlum-derived saga, there is not enough here for 120 minutes, let alone four films. We open on a rather confusing arms deal which goes awry, sending North Korean spy Pyo Jong-Seung (Ha Jung-woo) on the run, eager to find who was behind the ambush. There is another wrinkle to Pyo’s story, as his wife, Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), a translator at North Korea’s Berlin embassy, soon comes under investigation for being possible double agent. Framed as a defector, Pyo is presented with a deal from the devious Dong Myung-soo (a nicely nail-spitting Ryu Seung-bum)—sell out your wife, who is accused of being a double agent, and you're off the hook: “How can we suspect the loyalty of a man who will report his own wife if there are suspicious circumstances?”
As the film progresses, the action tends to get bogged down in political minutiae, and that’s too bad, because much of it—specifically a long, elaborate action sequence involving hand-to-hand combat and Jung-hee on a ledge, ending with a rather effective CGI crash through glass—is expertly handled by Seung-Wan. Scenes of a hotel shoot-out and of Pyo dangling on the side of a speeding van show that this could be a filmmaker ready for a jump to a “Taken 3”-style extravaganza. The obligatory guns-drawn-on-everyone finale is a bit of a letdown after some of the sequences that came before, bu there is a nice little twist ending so Bourne-y it feels as if Moby’s “Extreme Ways” could kick in at any second.
It is, in final analysis, too confusing, a bit too slow, and occasionally too dopey to be called a success. Its Berlin setting is fresh, yet the story itself, right down to a surprise pregnancy announcement, feels stale. Still, the performances, especially from Gianna Jun and Ha Jung-woo, are strong, and despite many flaws, it remains an enjoyably daffy bit of action cinema. Just don’t overthink. [C+]