[Deep Focus]

She's beautiful and deadly.

Movie Credits:

Written and directed by Kang Je-gyu

Edited by Park Gok-ji

Music by Lee Dong-jun

Cinematography by Kim Sung-Bok

Starring Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Mark Webber, Selma Blair, and Robert Wisdom

South Korea, 1999

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Screened on Korean all-region DVD

South Korean film @Deep Focus:

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My expectations for this one were probably too high, given its reputation as the current standard-bearer for Korean cinema and its notoriety among stateside Asiaphiles. What it proves, mainly, is that South Korean filmmakers can make undemanding action movies with all the alacrity of-and much less money than-their Hollywood counterparts.

The film opens, promisingly, with a tough-as-nails sequence depicting commandos in a bloody North Korean training camp. One of those commandos is a fierce and beautiful woman named Hee who evinces fearsome skills as an assassin. Hee raises a little hell, but promptly vanishes for an extended period of time before resurfacing in Seoul, causing consternation among South Korean police who worry that she's up to no good. When a commando raid in broad daylight hijacks a truck carrying samples of a dangerous liquid sci-fi explosive, it becomes clear that Hee and her cohorts are on a terrorist mission that may or may not be connected with the North Korean government.

What sets Shiri apart from Hollywood films is its atypical concentration on characters. South Korean cops Ryu and Lee fill the de rigeur buddy roles, but the film spends an inordinate amount of time on the relationship between Ryu and his girlfriend, a fish-store owner with a drinking problem. Shiri boasts an uncharacteristic amount of sentiment and even sweetness for a thriller; it seems to take cues from John Woo, who has a similar knack for infusing hard-boiled action with bald melodrama.

The title of the film refers to a type of fish that lives only in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and indeed Shiri qualifies as a political thriller. Essentially, we learn that Hee and her comrades stand for unification of North and South Korea, having grown appalled by the squalorous conditions in which their North Korean countrymen live. (One character asks if another has ever seen families eating their own dead just to stay alive; the mental image illuminates the sense of injustice and desparation that could lead reasonable men and women to terrorism.) Their eventual target is a soccer game to be attended by the presidents of both Koreas; believing that neither leader is truly in favor of unification, the terrorists intend to kill them both in order to further the cause.

The politics seem a little simplistic and the casual bombing of civilians depicted here feels hollow and disheartening following September 11. But as an export from Korea to the rest of the world, it does what it seemingly intends to do, using action-film metaphors as a vehicle for expressing abiding faith in a reunited Korea. Not a bad film; just an ordinary one that qualifies as a triumph given its country of origin.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer