We're Always A Step Behind: Shiri (1999)

Shiri, sometimes referred to as Swiri, was for quite awhile the highest grossing film in Korean cinema's sporadic history, going so far as to beat out sales for Titanic within Korea that year.  While Shiri is by no means a stellar piece of cinematic acheivement, it is certainly an enjoyable film with much to offer in the way of an action flick.  Vibrantly film, at times recalling a Wong Kar-Wai film, Je-kyu Kang's work is what one should expect from a thriller film.  However, what makes Shiri an exception to the general nature of action films is its incredibly heavy focus on the political nature of North and South Korea, something that becomes quite evident from the opening shots of the film.  As is no surprise to anybody who has remotely paid attention to the world over the past twenty-five years, North and South Korea are sworn enemies and their attempts to reconcile always fail miserably.  Shiri focuses on these issues in great detail and even attempts, at times, to offer optimistic solutions to the divisive state of things, however, as is integral to a action film, there are good guys and bad guys and in the case of this film they are clearly divided between national lines, almost as if the DMZ were the separating force.  Ultimately, this film full of Korean superstars exists first as a well-executed action film and secondly as proof that Korea can hold its own on a global scale, both in art house films and in big budget works as well.

Shiri begins with the training of a group of North Korean soldiers in a remote part of the Communist nation.  The trainees depicted engage in a variety of ruthless activities that range from bayonet practice of living individuals to a race assembling a gun to shoot the person next to them, all with the intent of creating an elite group of fighters to place within South Korea as a sort of sleeper cell.  This display sets of the underlying plot of the entire film, as the group will attempt to steal a explosive liquid material with a power equitable to an atomic bomb.  The central figure within the film is an unseen sniper known as Shiri, who has taken it upon herself to wipeout various South Korean leaders and diplomats, causing a considerable amount of unrest within Seoul and its surrounding provinces.  As is necessary to any good action film, a set of relationships and romances evolve and devolve throughout the film, particularly between partner detectives Yu Jong-won (Han Suk-kyu) and Lee Jang-gil (Song Kang-ho).  Yu constantly frets about accidentally killing Lee, while also panicking about the imminent marriage to his fiance Yi Myung-hyun, played masterfully by Kim Yunjin of LOST fame.  Each attempt by this triangle to deal with their relationships is halted by the ever present threat of total destruction at the hands of a nearly indistinguishable bomb.  The climax of the film takes place at a "friendly" soccer game between North and South Korea, aimed at helping to bond the nations; yet, it is precisely at this place that the bomb is intended to be detonated.  Through tough actions and quick thinking, the two detectives are able to prevent the bomb from exploding, however, for Yu it has very problematic consequences, as he realizes his own fiance was involved with the sleeper cell and had spent the entire time under a false alias, she herself, was none other than Shiri the entire time.

The commentary within Shiri is clearly one intended to critique and question the issue of a seemingly ideological divide between two struggling countries.  As the few documentaries available show, North Korea lives under a guise of self-sustenance, but is actually struggling to feed its ever expanding population, similarly, South Korea struggles to succeed on a global market, despite being relatively powerless to compete with well established global powers.  Shiri clearly critiques the divide between the two countries and uses the soccer game as a blatant metaphor for the necessity of unification.  On a more filmic level, Shiri is preoccupied with notions of identity, particularly those of North and South Korean, which to a Western eye are indistinguishable.  The fact that Shiri can steal the identity of a woman from South Korea placed within a mental institute with little to no problem is indicative of the political forces influencing the divide between the two nations.  It is not a matter of race, religion, or to much an extent class but a political pressure that has plagued the two nations for well over a half century.  In a rather simple comparison, it is the much like our own Cold War in that each side fears the destructive possibilities of the other, yet neither country possesses the means to outright destroy the other.  The bomb within the film is a water-like substance that is indistinguishable from the rejuvenating substance except when it is both placed under a light source and heated to an incredibly high temperature.  This liquid is much like the peoples of North and South Korea, they are calm and peaceful to the eye, yet to do the fueling of political rhetoric and misguided ideologies, it is possible for either side to destroy the other within seconds.  Unity is impossible due to a fiery paranoia that nothing seems to squelch.  While Shiri is optimistic of possible reunification, it is clear that the film gladly exploits this fear for a great film narrative and its high revenues reflect the ideas of South Korea far to greatly too ignore.

Key Scene: The entire composition and editing of the soccer game is something of a marvel to view

You could say that Shiri has become "the movie" that reflects New Korean Cinema, while it is certainly not a profound piece of filmmaking it is certainly worth taking a look at and Netflix has copies available so you are only hurting yourself by not checking it out.

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