In the first of many commanding set pieces in “The Age of Shadows,” a superb cloak-and-dagger entertainment that’s set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, one man follows another through a courtyard while a wave of officers swarm across the rooftops in hot pursuit. Leaping in loose, nimble formations from one building to the next, these officers resemble nothing so much as rifle-wielding extras in a 1920s spy-thriller replay of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
It’s a stunning image, and for all the adrenaline of the moment, its irresistible momentum has a way of putting you weirdly at ease. Over the course of this relentlessly swift 140-minute movie, your mind may race to keep up with the particulars of what’s at stake and who’s crossing whom. But the South Korean director Kim Jee-woon likes to work at his own pace, and he carries you over the narrative ramparts with style, verve and abundant confidence.
There are many mysteries in “The Age of Shadows,” none more compelling than the question of where one man’s allegiance lies. He’s Lee Jung-chool (played by the great Song Kang-ho), a Korean police captain whose cruel Japanese overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement.
The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun, in an extended cameo), senses that this turncoat, if approached and handled properly, might be turned once more — this time in their favor. And so begins an incremental, ingeniously coded psychological dance between Lee and a key resistance figure named Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul.
A filmmaker as attuned to detail and process as a watchmaker, Kim Jee-woon allows the machinations to build up and play out in inexorable yet unpredictable fashion. The centerpiece of “The Age of Shadows” is a long, glorious sequence in which all the principal characters find themselves on a train to Seoul, their various agendas and alliances shifting at every moment as they move between carriages. With its brutal, close-quarters action choreography and its steadily intensifying suspense, the sequence is a tour de force in a movie that proves worthy of the same designation.
Although rooted in a real-life 1923 plot to blow up a Japanese police station in Seoul, “The Age of Shadows” is less a fact-based drama than a deliriously unhinged B-movie fantasia that quickly slips the bonds of its historical framework. If the title carries inescapable echoes of “Army of Shadows,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s incomparable 1969 thriller about the French Resistance, the connection is underscored here by a female fighter, Yun Gye-soon (Han Ji-min, lovely and lethal in a red cloche hat), and also by the numerous scenes of her rightly suspicious collaborators ruthlessly pruning their own ranks.
A connoisseur of screen violence who can make even his famous countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook look timid by comparison, Kim Jee-woon has curbed but not sacrificed those grisly impulses here, as the arterial gushers and close-ups of severed digits will attest. But nothing in this gratifyingly focused movie feels excessive or gratuitous, and a situation that repeatedly threatens to spiral out of control is dramatized with the utmost assurance. These fighters and their undeniable heroism notwithstanding, resistance is futile.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo.
Director: Kim Jee-woon.
Screenwriters: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae.
A CJ Entertainment release. Running time: 140 minutes. Violence, gore, adult themes. In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.