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Shiri [Swiri] (1999)

This stylish thriller follows two elite South Korean secret agents, Ryu and Lee, as they hunt a ruthless North Korean assassin (a woman known only as Hee) and her compatriots (from North Korea's 8th Special Forces unit) who hijack a shipment of CTX, a newly created liquid of enormous explosive power.  The action takes place against the backdrop of Ryu's love affair with a recovering alcoholic, fish shop owner, and a soccer game between the two countries that occurs as part of a visit to Seoul by the leaders of North Korea for peace talks.

Although the film is mostly just an extraordinarily graphic combination of La Femme Nikita and John Woo's The Killer, it also seems to want to say something profound about the effects of separation on the Korean psyche, but it succeeds better at choreographing violence than at plumbing psycho-political drama.  Shiri, the codename of the North Korean terrorist plot, are a kind of fish that populate the rivers that divide the Korean peninsula and, I guess like salmon, swim upstream to spawn.  The screen is filled with images of fish and water and even the CTX is indistinguishable from water.   To the extent that I comprehend Kang's point, I guess the two peoples of Korea are supposed to be like the fish, fighting their way against the current to be reunited.  But their inability, over the past fifty years, to achieve this coupling is also used to explain the psychoses of the North Korean operatives, whose war cry is "For the Unification!", and to make them, especially Hee, as sympathetic as cold-blooded communist killers can be made.  A little of this pop philosophy generally goes a long way and by the time Kang tacks on a coda where he's explaining it all in more detail it's gotten a tad too heavy-handed for an adventure flick.

Other than this overt, even clumsy, politicizing, the film is fairly formulaic.  Anyone even casually acquainted with the conventions of the genre will know where the movie is headed most of the time and there's far more blood and guts on display than is really necessary for simple storytelling; it's truly gratuitous.  But when the focus turns from psychology and politics to action, it is quite exciting and visually diverting.  The Korean setting is also interesting, much of it oddly familiar, demonstrating how thoroughly American culture has penetrated the society, but exotic just the same.

Shiri famously out-grossed Titanic in South Korea and comes to America accompanied by a good deal of hype.  It fails to live up to what are probably unfair expectations, but taken for what it is--a technically accomplished thriller with a patina of serious politics--it is well worth watching.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

    -FILM SITE : Shiri (Subway Cinema)
    -INFO : Shiri (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Je-gyu Kang  (1960-)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (A. O. Scott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Carla Meyer, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Jeffrey M. Anderson, San Francisco Examiner)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Laxmi Nakarmi, AsiaWeek)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Keith Allison, Teleport City)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (TOR THORSEN ,
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Political Film Society)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Haro Online)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Digitally Obsessed)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Inside Out uk)
    -REVIEW : of Shiri (Stomp Tokyo)

    -Korean Cinema Edition