Film & DVD Review
A phantom sniper methodically assassinates key figures in a South Korean intelligence investigation. Special agent Ryu and his partner Lee suspect North Korea's most lethal female operative, Hee. When a security breach prompts the theft of a high-tech liquid explosive CTX from South Korean authorities, Ryu and Lee are certain there is a mole within their ranks.
Shiri was the first Korean film I ever saw. I was given a dodgy release of it as a present from my girlfriend (at that time) when she got back from Malaysia. She had heard that it was meant to be a big, good action film. I honestly had no idea what to expect. I was completely ignorant of Korean cinema, having not really heard a peep about it. Of all the Asian films I had seen, only a small handful were non-Hong Kong ones. That was about 2 years ago. I remember thoroughly enjoying the film, and went into my 2nd viewing with those thoughts in my mind.
Shiri was a new breed of film, in some regards, as far as Korean cinema goes. It had production values that were unheard of previously, and it went on to become the highest grossing film in Korean cinema history upon its release. It surpassed the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, and was the first film ever to draw more than two million viewers in South Korea's capital, Seoul. Those certainly are quite impressive achievements. So what was all the fuss about it then? Well, here's the plot.
Shiri isn't overly complex in the story department, which makes things easy to follow. To summarise, two South Korean Intelligence agents, Ryu and Lee, are trying to track down an exceptionally deadly female assassin named Hee. She's a member of North Korea's 8th Special Force, a group of elite commandos who have undergone an amazingly brutal and deadly training regime, to make them the best and most deadly that they can be. After apparently disappearing for a little less than a year, another assassination takes place that has all the hallmarks of a Hee hit. In investigating what has brought Hee out again, the agents soon discover that other members of the 8th Special Force are also in South Korea, indicating something big is going to take place, but they don't know what. After more killings, the two agents learn of a new state of the art liquid explosive called CTX, and evidence seems to point to this being the target of the North Korean agents. Despite their best efforts, the 8th Special Force group is always one step ahead of them, and manages to seize a shipment of the CTX. With more than enough to practically level all of Seoul, the agents have to quickly work out what it is the North Korean agents are wanting, and a way to stop them before thousands to millions of people are killed.
I will point out here, that this release of Shiri is technically uncut, but it is not the director's cut. There is a scene where one of the 8th Special Force kills a mystery man with a gun. The scene doesn't make sense as you don't know who this man is, as there is no explanation to his appearance in the film. He is killed off very quickly too, and is not mentioned again. The director's cut of Shiri, has these scenes removed. Also worth noting, is that at the start of the film there is an English text section very briefly explaining the tension between the two Koreas. This was not present on the Korean release of the film, and helps people unfamiliar with the situation in Korea get a slight understanding.
I mentioned in that brief synopsis the brutal training that the North Korean 8th Special Force recruits had to undergo. This training is shown in quite graphic detail at the beginning of the film and, while not meaning to take anything away from the rest of the film, these scenes are the most memorable from the whole film. The sheer horrifying brutality of the training cannot help but have an impact on your mind. The recruits are taught to kill without hesitation or remorse, by frequently killing captives (who these captives are is not mentioned) in brutal ways: Stabbing and hacking them to death while they are tied to stakes, beating them up with their bare hands and somehow ripping their heads of, having a gun assembly race against them, with the loser being shot in the head. The camera does not shy away from these scenes either. Little is left to the imagination, and you are also shown what happens to recruits that find it all too much for them. Even though the rest of the film is good, it is a shame the film peaked so early as the rest just can't compete. If the film had managed to maintain the energy, tone and the 'grab you by the balls and make you pay attention' factor, then I honestly think that this would have been one of the best action films I would have ever see. I honestly found the opening training scenes to be that good. Quite short, but very good.
After this, the rest of the film is more generic in the action stakes. It clearly has got influence from the likes of Hong Kong for the gunplay and Hollywood for the general action tone. Neither of those comments was meant derogatorily. Combined with the story, it all works well. There are minor surprises and plot twists in there, and frequent action scenes for those who are more adrenalin action junkies. I said at the start that after seeing Shiri for the first time I really enjoyed it. On second viewing, given that I knew the general gist of what was going on, I was able to see some flaws to the film that hadn't struck me as much before. All the gunplay scenes look great, there is no denying that. Loads of people have guns and bullets fly everywhere... well almost everywhere. They generally tend not to hit their target that often. Obviously this is to make the gunfights last longer, but after a while I found it was possibly quite unrealistic. For every 80 (at least, possibly) bullets fired, one hits a person. That is not a very respectable hitting average, is it? Now let's put this into perspective. Agents Ryu and Lee are the top agents in their field. The 8th Special Force are elite commandos, who have had extensive weapons training. With this in mind, I do find it hard to believe that they have such a bad aim for the majority of their gunfights! That is my main gripe for Shiri, and as I started to pay attention to it, I enjoyed the film less as a result.
Aims aside, the action scenes are very well choreographed. Locations are varied, and tactics are employed by both sides, with very few people being 'gung-ho'. This I was pleased with as with their life at stake, who the hell is going to charge in the open at a group of people shooting at you?! the filmmakers also didn't shy away from the bullet effects when people are shot. There is blood, and reasonable amounts of it. The scenes are loud, energetic and action-aesthetically pleasing, if a tad unrealistic.
As far as the acting is concerned there isn't really much to fault, for an action movie. In fact a couple of the performances are certainly a higher standard than you tend to expect for a highly explosive action film. The stand out is Choi Min-Sik as one of the 8th Special Force. The intensity he gives, the effort he put into his role is clear to see - more so if you watch the 'Making Of' - and the emotion he delivers, particularly in his speech near the end about the state of life in North Korea, make him very worthy of praise. The two South Korean agents both put in highly credible performance too, as in fact do the entire main cast.
Given the look of the film, Shiri has been compared to Hollywood action films, and I think it has shown that Korea can compete on the same level, as this is up there with a lot of the better Hollywood action films. Where Korea won't be able to compete though, is in the film's budget. If Shiri had been made identically in Hollywood it is likely that it would have been US$60+m or something like that... basically a very large amount. In Korea they made the film for the rough equivalent of US$5m, and that is a lot of money for a Korean film's budget. Value for money is undoubtedly something that is better understood in the East than in the West! With the quality shown here in Shiri, it staggers my mind to think what the Korean cinema industry would be capable of if they were able to make a US$100m film, which are all to frequent in the US.
I did very much enjoy Shiri. I was entertained, interested and at times very pleasantly surprised in both my viewings. Had I rated the film after my first viewing two years ago, the film would have got 4 thumbs. Now though, I am going to have to dock it half a thumb. The terrible aims of the special agents are a bit infuriating, and the film peaks too early. That being said that peak will always be remembered for its sheer ferocity. Regardless, Shiri is a definite keeper in my books.
Audio & Subtitles
This Shiri release comes with DD5.1 Korean, English and French soundtracks. Korean being the original language for the film made it an easy choice as to which one I chose. Effects are frequently spread all around the soundstage, with vehicles, rain and, most commonly, bullets having their own discrete effects all around the viewer. It all sounds nice, crisp and sharp and really I think it does its job very well. All speech is perfectly audible and in time with the movements of the speaker's lips. My only complaint is that the track as a whole is quite quiet. This was easily fixed by turning up my receiver, but I had to turn it up 5 or 6 notches more than usual. I'm only really complaining as I forgot about this when I next used the receiver, and was practically deafened by the noise when it came on!
The subtitles are yellow in colour - something I'm not particularly used to, which may be why I did at times find them harder to read than white subtitles. Grammar and spelling are perfect, as you would expect on a US DVD. My only complaint here is that the play, which we see some of the characters watching, is not subtitled. Granted what they are saying on stage is unlikely to have any relevance in the slightest to the film, but it would still have been quite nice to have had it subbed.
Being a Columbia Tristar release, I would have expected nothing less than a very good print. They fortunately didn't disappoint. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is very clean throughout, with minimal speckling or other dirt defects. Colours are all pretty much nice and bold when they should be, and the detail level consistently looks good. I didn't notice any grain at all while watching. The film, apparently, has been cropped from its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 to 1.85:1.
DVD & Extras
For extras, first there is a 54 minute "Making Of..." documentary, which is in Korean and has been subtitled in English. It is actually surprisingly interesting to see. I wasn't expecting much, but it shows how a lot of the shots were created, and quite a number of them were not in the way I had expected at all! This is particularly the case with the exploding person scene. I had thought that it was done using CG, but no, it wasn't! To find out whether they actually did explode a person or not, you'll have to watch the documentary. What makes the film more impressive from watching this documentary, is the dedication of the actors and actresses involved. They all trained very hard, and put themselves through quite a lot of pain and physical injury to get the film as required. It also charts the success of Shiri in the cinema, and gives fan reactions. Well worth a watch. Next up is a music video for the song "When I Dream". This song is not to my tastes so I didn't watch much of the video to comment on it. Lastly there are theatrical trailers.
It is probably worth commenting on this US DVD's cover. What the hell is that about? Columbia Tristar clearly figured that with Shiri being a foreign film, it would be harder to sell to the general public, especially if it had to compete with other English language action films, even if those films were inferior. Solution? Put a woman in a skimpy dress, who has got nothing at all to do with the film, on the front cover. Hang on, it can be made to look better, give her a gun as well. Needless to say, the DVD menues also feature this woman. I don't know if it is the same woman, but in the chapters index card inside the DVD and on the DVD itself, there is a woman in leather and sunglasses with a gun, who also has nothing to do with the film.
Shiri is an action film which is well worth seeing. It has got lots of guns, explosions, deaths and enough brutality to keep most action fans happy. It isn't another Hard Boiled or anything like that, but it is a highly competent entry in the genre from South Korea.
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