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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "Shiri"

2013/10/19 | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: "Shiri" (1999) by Kang Je-gyu

Kang Je-gyu's "Shiri" was a landmark feature that stands as Korea's first real blockbuster. The film sold over 6.2 million admissions during its run in 1999, an astonishing feat that broke the shackles on big-budget Korean films and represents a critical moment in Korea's film history. Kang made his debut three years before "Shiri" with "The Gingko Bed" (1996), a fantasy romantic epic that was heralded for its special effects and was also one of country's most successful films at the time. Since "Shiri", Kang has chosen to remain in the filmic fog of war, directing both the acclaimed "Taegukgi" (2004 - 11.7 million admissions) as well as the less successful "My Way" (2011 – 2.1 million). Kang may have fallen from grace somewhat with his last film "My Way" (which failed to make a profit on its $24 million production costs; the film made only $16M) and with this year's fantastical flop "Mr. Go" (which he produced), however Kang's filmography still remains an impressive one that has helped challenge and re-define the conditions and profitable potential of the once illusive Korean blockbuster.

"Shiri" takes place in Seoul where a group of radical North Korean militants have infiltrated and set-up a covert operation that threatens the lives of the capital's inhabitants. Six years earlier a highly trained agent (Lee Bang-hee played by Kim Yunjin) was inserted into the South, now the time has come for this elite sniper to cast aside her recent history and fulfil her pledge by executing a series of deadly attacks on the nation's capital. Bang-hee's handler (Choi Min-sik as the hard-line commander Mu-young) meets-up with his top student to begin their new mission in service of a "united Korea". However, Bang-hee's six years in the South has soften her resolve, particularly with regards to her personal life, and is forced to decided between her own personal feelings and the controversial mission at hand.

"Shiri" orientates itself around the prickly issues of cross-border politics through personal encounters and radical military recourse towards unification. South Korean cinema continues to invest in features that capture this socio-political tension, but it was Kang Je-gyu who led the charge in depicting and challenging the collective concerns over Korea's national identity. Throughout the film filmgoers are reminded of the two country's inseparable past (and future) by way of the symbolic motif of the 'kissing gouramis'-a popular aquarium fish that lives its life in parallel to its mate. Kang makes his ideology clear by suggesting that Korea's division is one that deeply, and fatalistically, affects both sides of the DMZ and that unification is intrinsic as much as it is painful. It's a suitable and elegant metaphor that orientates Kang's film amidst the trying social, economical, and political climate of the time, a cause that continues to reverberate within Korean and its dreamy cinemascapes.

"Shiri" paid homage to both the intense action-packed films coming out of the West the previous decade, as well as the fluid action style of pan-Asian (particular Hong Kong) action flicks of the time. Korean filmgoers were treated to an array of action-orientated espionage and large-scale explosions and special effects that helped market the film and push the industry towards recognising the potential of such endeavours when suitable situated within the prevailing social consciousness. Viewers returning to Kang's landmark event will find the style and validity of the action and narrative logic perhaps already out-dated and dusty, but the social and industrial significance of the film can not be denied or deflated. "Shiri" was the first Korean blockbuster in history to yield such a positive and impressive response from audiences. An effect that has since been, to varying degrees, emulated (in what critics latter called the 'Shiri syndrome') and is arguably the cinematic precursor to this year's string of record-breaking blockbusters and box office figures.

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com; @KoreaOnTheCouch)

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