Korean tensions erupt in action film ‘Shiri’ (쉬리)

Swiri2

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 8, 2002

3 stars

Directed by Kang Je-gyu. (Starring Kim Yunjin, Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik)

The opening sequence of “Shiri” is so frenetic and violent that some filmgoers may wince at the unrelenting brutality. But if you can make it through the first few minutes, there’s cinematic eye candy waiting to enthrall you.

One of the fiercest soldiers on an elite North Korean force is Hee, a young female sniper who shoots to kill and never misses. When enemy soldiers are hunted, she shows no feeling as she decapitates her prey. When she retires, she is given a solemn, heroic sendoff.

Flash forward 10 years. The South Korean intelligence recognizes a rash of killings as the handiwork of Hee, who now has become one of North Korea’s most efficient assassins. Dressed in designer clothes and sporting ice blue nail polish, she blends into Seoul with ease. Special agents Ryu and Lee are assigned to track her down, but she is always two steps ahead of them. Is there a mole among the South Korean agents? If so, is it one of them?

ShiriThough the film is set in modern times, it deals with the ramifications of the Korean War. With talks of reunification between South and North Korea being held, the leaders of both nations try to show unity by hosting a soccer match.

A team of elite North Korean commandos doesn’t believe a soccer match will help their countrymen who are starving to death. With Hee already in Seoul, the commandos infiltrate South Korea with plans to assassinate one or both of the nations’ leaders at the game.

Directed and written by Kang Je-Gyu, “Shiri” originally was released several years ago in South Korea, where it shattered box office records. Six million Koreans went to see the film. By comparison, the previous record was held by “Titanic,” which was seen by 4.5 million filmgoers in South Korea.

Kang is a stylish director who is as at ease as John Woo or Luc Besson when it comes to presenting surreal, stylized violence. With a $5 million budget, he has created a rich feel that resonates with vibrancy. He seamlessly segues between the stark killing fields of North Korea to the bright urban bustle of Seoul, South Korea.

In Korean, shiri refers to a freshwater fish that swims in both North and South Korea’s streams. The title is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the hope of many Koreans to be able to freely move between what was once a united country.

Release date: February 13, 1999.

Running time: 125 minutes.

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