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With: Han Suk-kyu, Song Kang-ho, Kim Jun-jin, Choi Min-sik
Written by: Kang Je-gyu
Directed by: Kang Je-gyu
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and some language
Language: Korean, with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 03/18/2013

Shiri (1999)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Shiri' Madness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

About a year ago, three Korean movies -- Nowhere to Hide, Lies and Chunhyang -- opened in the Bay Area in rapid succession. Each was refreshingly, radically different from the other two, as well as radically different from anything else playing at the time.

Now, in the past few months I've seen two Korean movies, plus a French movie, that simply copy the formula for a generic American action film. But at least the French The Crimson Rivers and the Korean Tell Me Something seemed to have fun playing with the genre. The new film Shiri does not.

I only have a small suspicion as to why Shiri takes itself so seriously. Almost all action movies end with some giant set piece: Dirty Harry climaxed at Kezar Stadium; North By Northwest ended on top of Mount Rushmore; John Woo's Hard-Boiled in a maternity ward full of babies; and Raiders of the Lost Ark on a remote island during the religious Ark-opening ceremony -- you get the picture.

The big blowout finale in Shiri takes place at a soccer match between warring South Korea and North Korea. It's an attempt at a peace offering between the two factions. But the film's bad guys, terrorists, are not interested in peace offerings -- they want to blow up the stadium and take out all the VIPs from both sides at the same time.

Now, I'm all for peace between North and South Korea, and judging by the huge box office reception of this film in its home country, the Koreans are, too. But bringing this touchy issue into a standard-issue bang-bang movie only weighs it down with self-importance. The two don't really mix. It's like sending Rambo out after Osama Bin Laden.

The rest of the film leading up to the climax doesn't seem to be having much fun either. Our heroes, two South Korean agents named Ryu (Han Suk-kyu) and his partner Lee (Song Kang-ho), are on the trail of a killer -- a young woman -- called Hee (Kim Jun-jin). The film's prologue shows her training with a renegade North Korean army, shooting targets past the heads of her comrades. In the present day, though, Hee has a pretty good hiding place -- right under our heroes' noses.

At the same time, Ryu and Lee must track down a stolen shipment of CTX, a new explosive that looks like water and activates under a combination of heat and light. The terrorists, led by Park (Choi Min-sik), plan to use the explosive to blow up the stadium. This stuff wouldn't be too out of place in any Lethal Weapon or Die Hard sequel.

Sadly, director Kang Je-gyu also takes the American approach to filming his action scenes, shaking and jiggling the camera every which way and cutting fast to simulate chaos. The trouble is that this method doesn't just simulate chaos -- it actually is chaotic. Most other Asian directors (John Woo, Tsui Hark, Lee Myung-se) understand that for an action scene to work, the audience needs to see it, which doesn't seem like too much to ask.

So, despite beating out Titanic and becoming the all-time Korean box office champion, Shiri ends up offering nothing more than the latest Schwarzenegger or Stallone flick would.

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