Wherein director Ryoo Seung-Wan makes me sad
I briefly met The Berlin File director Ryoo Seung-Wan at the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival. He was there promoting his then-newest film The Unjust, and he did a Q&A session with the audience following a public screening. (Afterwards, I would accost him for a photo; the man is completely adorable.) He had a few interesting things to say, but there was one thing in particular that stuck out to me. When asked why he tends to shoot action films over any other types, he said:
At the time, I thought it was just kind of a funny thing he said. While watching The Berlin File, though, I realized that he was serious. The film attempts to add in some of those elements (though stops short of having any actual physical contact), and they... well, let's just say they're awkward at best.
The Berlin File (Bereurlin | 베를린)
If you have a few extra minutes, I would implore you to read my review of Im Sang-Soo's The Taste of Money. Not because I think it is a masterwork of film criticism or anything, but because the language issues on display in that film are almost identical to those found in The Berlin File. This year truly seems to be the year of the English-language debuts for many Korean directors, whether they've come to America to make the film or not, and it isn't looking so hot for most of them. At that same Q&A, Ryoo Seung-Wan was asked if he'd ever make a film in America, and he said he wouldn't. There were two parts of his reasoning that struck me as particularly poignant, and in the context of this film, seem kind of bizarre: "It feels more right when I make a film about where I live... and crucially, studying English is very difficult."
If you couldn't guess from the title, The Berlin File does not take place in South Korea, or any part of Asia for that matter. It takes place in Berlin. And it's in English, Korean, and German. When I saw him less than two years ago, Ryoo Seung-Wan's grasp of English was tenuous at best. For him to release a film that is so reliant on the language so soon is really kind of bizarre. Given that there are no listed co-writers, I wonder if he actually did write the German and English dialogue. I would never call it "good" dialogue, so I guess it wouldn't surprise me. Even in Korean, the dialogue between protagonist Pyo Jong-Sung (Ha Jung-Woo) and his wife (Gianna Jun) is stilted at best. But what I wrote about The Taste of Money just a few weeks ago is just as true here, so I'll leave it at that.
What really makes The Berlin File strange is that it is a clear step down from Ryoo Seung-Wan's earlier work. In previous films like The Unjust and The City of Violence, the action scenes are crazy and awesome (especially in the latter), and they showcased a real talent for directing action. The Berlin File's action, which is good at its best (and rarely there), just can't compare. And I can explain to you exactly why it doesn't work: momentum. One of the things I noticed in The Unjust is that there was a lot of characters throwing and flipping each other. Throwing is pretty simple to do, safe if you know what you're doing, and looks good. It's really a win-win from an aesthetic standpoint.
The Berlin File goes even further with the throws, but it also fails to make them effective, because there is no clear sense of momentum between cuts. An easy way to make a cut feel natural is to cut on action. If something is moving rapidly in a shot, you cut to movement in a different shot and it's not as noticeable as a cut on nothing. In The Berlin File, the cuts are wrong. The cut starts when a person's hand is twisted slightly (as it would at the beginning of a throw) and then cuts to that person already sailing through the air. I've thrown people, and I've been thrown. A lot. That kind of weak hand-twist that they were doing would never make a person flip through the air like that. Given the reliance on these kinds of over-the-top throws, the combat loses a lot of its visceral intensity. There are times when it works and it works well, but it's very sad how few and far in between they are.
Equally sad is the reliance on CGI for things like cars, explosions, and people falling down electrical wiring. The CG in The Berlin File is legitimately bad. Had the CG scenes been cut from the film, some of the chases would have been less apparently epic and other pretty crazy things wouldn't have been able to happen, perhaps, but it would have felt much more cohesive. Not all of the effects needed to be CG anyways. It was used out of convenience rather than necessity.
But it isn't actually all bad. In fact, the film on the whole is quite decent and entirely watchable. The story, which centers around North Korean spies in Berlin being framed for reasons they don't understand, is compelling enough, and there is a whole lot of mystery and intrigue. In fact, there are so many double-crossings that at a couple of moments I wasn't entirely sure who was shooting at who, because I didn't understand where their allegiances actually lied. That was unfortunate, but I was generally able to figure it out, and in those times when I couldn't? Well, I just sat back and watched the bullets fly. Eventually the dust settled and I could figure out what was going on by who was still alive. That's probably not how I was supposed to get it, but I didn't care too much. When the film finally wrapped up, I figured out how things had gotten to where they were, which was good enough for me. If you're looking for an intensely intellectual and perfectly plotted international spy thriller, you won't find it here. But if you aren't looking for that, the story is completely serviceable.
If the ending did set itself up for a sequel, though, which it really seemed like it could have, I can't pretend to be happy about that. I don't want to see The Berlin File 2, but it leaves things weirdly open-ended.
When it all comes down to it, though, I'm really just disappointed. I didn't love The Unjust, but I liked it quite a bit, and I thought that some of its ideas could have been expanded in interesting ways. The Berlin File seems like an unsuccessful attempt to do that. It flew directly in the face of what Ryoo Seung-Wan said about himself less than two years ago, and I don't really understand why. Was it all a mistranslation? Or did he decide to challenge himself on some pretty fundamental levels? Either way, the decisions that were made weren't his best. There are shades of some of his other work, but even though there are some big moments, they never really feel as grand or intense as they should.
Still, The Berlin File is a competent action-thriller. In fact, it's more than competent, but not by much. I can't imagine many people will love it, but I don't think people will hate it either. Certainly it's a whole lot better than A Good Day to Die Hard. If, in your post-Valentine's blues, you wanted to watch John McClane cause some international on a theater screen... don't. Do yourself a favor and watch The Berlin File instead.