It wouldn’t be right to refer to “The Age of Shadows” as a “yarn.” Very loosely based on an explosive footnote in the history of Japanese-Korean relations, the latest full-bodied epic from “I Saw the Devil” director Kim Jee-woon sprouts such a labyrinthine story from a single incident that this chic (if convoluted) spy thriller would be more accurately described as a magical beanstalk. The cloak-and-dagger adventure is far too sprawling for its own good, and the air only grows thinner as the film propellers towards its underwhelming finale, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more lavishly staged staged chunk of pulp nonsense.
Not that fans of the filmmaker should be expecting anything else. A grind-house gore-hound who’s capable of elevating filth to the level of Hieronymus Bosch (or, depending on your perspective, lowering maximalist art straight into the sewers), Kim has always been attracted to excess — the guy has never met a molehill he couldn’t make into a mountain with a crimson peak. Kim once made a gonzo neo-Western called “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” but that colorful title could be just as easily slapped on to any of his other movies, none of which come to a close until the director has indulged in all three parts. By that standard, seeing him work within the restrictive confines of the Hollywood system for the 2013 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand” was like watching a juggler try to perform with a hand tied behind his back.
The Hollywood system felt the same way. Warner Bros., realizing that it might pay off to let Kim be Kim, decided to switch things up and bankroll a project on his terms. The result is the studio’s first Korean-language film, and “The Age of Shadows” certainly highlights its hybrid identity. Here is a hectic, handsomely furnished piece of pop entertainment that combines the sheen of a blockbuster with the stubbornness of an auteur who’s been left to his vices. At its worst, the subterfuge and skulking around gets to be so much that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on — at its best, the filmmaking is so rich and fluid that you couldn’t possibly care less.
“The Age of Shadows” begins at its best. It’s sometime in the late 1920s, and Korea’s resistance to the Japanese occupation is growing more violent. A leader of the rebellion is meeting with a contact deep in the heart of Seoul, but the Japanese police have caught wind of their actions. An entire fleet of rifle-carrying soldiers are summoned in to surround the area, dozens of them sweeping over the moonlit rooftops like a gust of wind — the way Kim orchestrates bodies in motion is on par with vintage Spielberg, and the energy generated by this sequence alone is enough to sustain the movie for its first hour. Leading the charge is Captain Lee Jung-chool (“Memories of Murder” star Song Kang-ho, a master of morally ambiguous characters), a Korean-born officer who’s betrayed his homeland in exchange for a cushy position with the invading forces.
Quickly moving up the ranks, Lee is tasked with visiting an antiquities dealer named Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, intriguingly shifty and sympathetic) and ferreting out any ties he might have to resistance leadership. Those ties, it turns out, are knotted too tightly for any one person to untangle, and the delicate friendship that develops between the two men is soon revealed to be at the center of a bulging network of soft-lit spies, femme fatales, Hungarian demolition experts and one very mean Japanese cop (considering that the movie depicts its Japanese characters with all the subtly and nuance of Indiana Jones Nazis, it’s not a surprise that this role is played by a Korean actor).
The story spills from Seoul to Shanghai and back again, growing a bit shaggier with every turn of the tide. “Who can be a friend in this age?” someone eventually asks, but by that point the only thing you can keep straight is that people tend to be loyal to those who offer them a helping hand, regardless of what flag they fly. Of course, the beauty of a Kim Jee-woon movie is that it never really matters how often or how completely you lose interest, because you’re only ever one sequence away from being glued to the edge of your seat.
If the director has never offered a less compelling plot, he’s also never conjured such incredible set pieces. The best of them is inarguably a 30-minute scene on a smoky antique train, in which all of the characters are gathered together and literally compartmentalized as Lee snakes through the carriages and switches sides every time he steps through a door. Naturally, it crescendoes to a massacre — Kim may be working for a major American studio, but the guy refuses to surrender his sadistic tendencies. In one early scene, a member of the Japanese police force sends the Korean rebellion a spy’s swollen, purple, not-so-freshly amputated toe as a keepsake, as if the director is marking his territory with blood.
One crescendo gives way to another and another and then another after that; by the time one character is captured and tortured — long after Lee’s moral compass has spun around so many times that its eventual landing point already feels arbitrary — you’ll kind of understand how they feel. It’s still easy to appreciate why Korea decided to submit this lustrous, studio-sanctioned the country’s official submission to the Oscars (“The Handmaiden” is too pervy, “The Wailing” is too demonic, “Train to Busan” is too frivolous), but the film feels as lost in the dark as any of its characters. Kim Jee-woon will always gravitate towards the bleaker side of the things, but “The Age of Shadows” suggests that his stories might benefit from just a little bit more light.
“The Age of Shadows” opens in theaters on September 23.