The Berlin File (2013)

The Berlin File (2013)
  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Action | Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
  • Cast: Gianna Jun, Jung-woo Ha, Werner Daehn


A North Korean agent in Berlin is betrayed and cut loose in the midst of a financial espionage intrigue. Together with his wife, a translator at the North Korean embassy in Berlin, they try to escape being purged, as North and South Korean operatives relentlessly pursue them.

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  • I saw Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring 2003 during its UK release in 2004. Make a big impression it did.
    My joy was in part due to the epic visions of its director and cinematographer. A small lake high in the Korean foothills above the city. A retiring man of chi – a monk probably – develops relationships with the real world. A floating house with a deck patterned with fading letters – symbols of a cat’s tail. An ornamental carved wooden door stands free of any connecting walls. An expectation of privacy and respect.
    I was so enamoured by this piece of visual poetic genius, I built my Art College ‘final-piece’ around it in 2005.

    I have looked for Korean movies since. I’ve not found anything as powerful – either visually or spiritually:
    Oldboy confused me. I’ve only seen it twice. I think I need another two viewings before I really begin to understand its metaphysics.
    Memories of Murder was better – the pacing, acting and storyline all flowed well.
    The Good, The Bad, The Weird was just that. A fun romp though.
    Poetry – a great film for getting a better idea of what South Korea really is.
    But that’s it for more meaningful Korean movies.
    Which has me turning back to Miyazaki, Kitano, Kurosawa. I get my East Asian fix with some Nippon Nintensity:-

    I love Japanese movies. Japan has an ethereal aesthetic. The houses are wood and paper and very calm. The cherry blossom is light and revered. The women seem meek and girly. The men can be overly violent. They kick things in frustration. They kick each other. They shout with a very low voice. And even more strangely, they can be cloyingly sentimental: The same movie that shows someone being de-eyed – Lear-style – can moments later, switch to honey-coated slush.

    Recent Korean movies on the other hand, don’t have these extremes. The range of emotions tends to be restricted. Meaning if it’s a violent movie, then it’ll be mostly violent. If it’s a sentimental movie, there won’t be any bruising. If it’s a crime movie, you can expect crime – and a few policemen.
    Get me?
    And talking of violence, apart from my eye-opening experience with Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall), Winter, Spring, and the odd ‘social film’, the bulk of my Korean discoveries have been crime focused: I have seen many Korean policemen – in uniform and in sharp suits.
    But I’m not a fan of crime movies.
    Well, that may not be true. I am definitely not a fan of TV crime series. (Unless they’re Danish/Swedish of course.) I have enjoyed the British Crime genre – Snatch; Layer Cake; stuff like that. These are films that, although ridiculously violent, have a deeply embedded black humour. A humour that already has my wry-smile-muscles aching badly by the half-way point. They also benefit from a healthy amount of ironic self-reference. A different type of humour I guess.
    So, I’m not a fan of crime. And most Korean movies seem to be crime – of the ‘organised’ type in the main.
    The Berlin File – North Koreans in Berlin? Sounds fun. With some spying too!
    My only experience of North Koreans in film is Team America. And that didn’t end well. So this had to be a film worth a look…

    And suddenly we are in it. All the characters appear at once. They are all wearing sharp suits and expensive haircuts (apart from the Arab). The filming is neat. The action – and it’s all action from the off – is incredibly intense. Fast.
    So fast in fact that there is no time to read the subtitles. And there are many many , many words that need to be read if I’m gonna understand this movie.

    These Korean men are running over rooftops, jumping through windows. Using silencers on their Glocks. Koreans standing at gun-point, then amazingly getting away after some metallic slicing sound effects. And then another Korean on a train wears a beanie. Which possibly makes him North Korean? Or possibly a Parisian escapee from a Luc Besson film. And the be-beanied one kills a white-guy in the train toilet with a syringe to the neck. And the white-guy has what looks like respiratory arrest – his face goes deep-crimson; his body seizes up and he squirms on the spattered floor [dies]. I’m not sure I have ever seen a more convincing death on film. I’m not sure if that is good or bad?

    The Berlin File is an espionage /spy story. There are ambassadors; spies; taxi drivers; men with fancy computery gadgetry.
    There are women who may or may not be double agents. There are men who may or may not be double agents. Or triple.
    The CIA are there of course – but they die crassly as you would expect. And the Arabs. And the Israelis. Germans of course – corrupt politicians with piggy moist eyes and big noses. German Polizei in 2D. They are all there and they are all playing a complex and dangerous game against each other.
    I am reminded of organized street theatre in Covent garden (London,Engaland). Five tallish new-age men stand in a circle – their embroidered waistcoats unbuttoned, their straggly hair in top-knots – and juggle ten-pins to each other. One of the pins is alight with yellow flame. There are pins flying everywhere. The men are shouting – wooping. The audience can’t take their eyes off the flaming pin… The pins fly and swirl. The men holler and dance. The light sears the audience’s retinas.

    And the one man I was sure was a North Korean has taken his beanie off. And he’s got great hair and a brilliant tailor. So the Koreans all look the same again. And the only participant who stands out is the Arab because he has crazy hair and he wears a brown jacket. I know. BROWN. WTF?
    Pity the poor Arab – what a low regard Koreans have for him. Dreadful hair-care, appalling fashion sense, and only one buddy-activity – bomb-making. Very funny.

    What is The Berlin File? It is a typical on-location movie. Like when a soap-opera goes off set to a ‘real place’. Packed with stereotypes and prejudices.
    I thought ‘North Korea’. That should be interesting I thought – even if it is from a South Korean perspective. I expected spies in jodhpurs riding mules. AK47s. Rice and cabbage soup.
    What I got was a South Korean plum-pudding of spy-dom in some idealized Europe.

    “Oooo lets do a spy movie in our standard Korean style.
    Hmmmm. Where shall we do a spy movie?
    Hmmmm. Bourne Supremacy? The Spy who came in from the cold? Funeral in Berlin?
    Oooooo Berlin. Of course!”

    And so the Koreans came to Europe. With them they brought their frantic Honk Kong Action cinema, their shiny black leather shoes, and lots of noise. They brought an idea of what a movie in Europe should be like (The Bourne Supremacy) and a radically racist view of the world. They left very little behind them when they went home.

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