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Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000


Taking action to a new frontier

"Shuri," a high-octane thriller whose protagonists are South and North Korean espionage agents, set a new all-time box-office record when it was released in South Korea last year, beating out even "Titanic." In the process, it became a local and international media sensation, analyzed not only for its impact on the ailing Korean film industry, but also for its importance to the future of North-South relations. This, as the flood of press comment made clear, was no ordinary popcorn movie.

Distributors marketing "Shuri" abroad, however, had to wonder how this very Korean film would play with audiences whose knowledge of Korean politics would fit on a postage stamp of Kim Il Sung. In Japan, as it turned out, distributors Cine Quanon and Amuse needn't have worried -- "Shuri" (changed from the original title, "Shiri," buttocks in Japanese) opened at he top of the box-office chart following its release here in January and has since played to packed houses.

I first saw "Shuri" at the 1999 Pusan International Film Festival at a huge outdoor theater near Pusan harbor, seemingly the ideal setting for this biggest of all Korean films. Then the chill October wind began whistling through my thin jacket, and made me more concerned about hypothermia than enthralled by the film's hypothetical scenario of a new Korean war touched off by an exotic new explosive.

My second viewing, at a theater in Ikebukuro with four walls and a heater, convinced me not only that film is an art form best appreciated indoors, but that "Shuri" is terrific entertainment that takes the action movie to a more realistic and -- dare I say it? -- meaningful level.

Most Hollywood action films are little more than plot machines set into motion by a "what if" premise that may look plausible on first glance, but is really little more than an excuse to kill off the villains in new and creative ways, while blowing up as much stuff as possible. "Shuri" director and scriptwriter Kang Je Gyu has borrowed freely from Hollywood models (as essayist Jun Edoki noted in the program, the story is "Full Metal Jacket" meets "Heat" meets "Nikita" meets "Face/Off"), but he has also skillfully interwoven real Korean concerns and recognizable human emotions into his thriller story.

At the same time, he gives his North Korean agents more than two dimensions, while allowing their leader, the ruthless but passionately committed Park Mu Young (Choi Min Sik), to make the North Korean case with an eloquence that would have been politically impossible a decade ago. "Shuri" is melodrama pitched to the highest possible level, but it also manages to be epic in more than scale. Perhaps a generation on, Koreans will look back on this attempt to bridge the chasm between North and South as their hypercharged "Gone With the Wind."

Kang begins "Shuri" much the way Stanley Kubrick began "Full Metal Jacket," with a long, intense sequence of North Korean commandos (or, to view them from the South Korean perspective, terrorists) in training that makes this camp from hell look worse than the missions they are preparing for.

The star pupil of this group is Lee Bang Hee (Kim Yun Jin), who is lithe and lovely, but blindly fanatic and pitilessly competent at her deadly arts. She is chosen by her hard-faced commander, Park Mu Yong, for a dangerous and vital mission inside enemy territory. Standing ramrod straight in a driving rainstorm, she accepts this honor with a fierce pride that bodes ill for the luckless victims who find themselves in her gun sights.

The years pass and the scene shifts to the headquarters of South Korean intelligence, where agents are investigating the murders of scientists involved in top-secret defense work. Lee is the suspect, but Yu Jong Won (Han Suk Kyu) and Lee Jang Gil (Song Kang Ho), the two agents on the case, have no clues as to her whereabouts -- only a lengthening list of bodies.

Then Yu catches Lee Bang Hee in the act of killing an arms dealer with two perfectly aimed bullets from a high-powered rifle. But why, his partner wonders, didn't she off the nearby Yu as well? Before he can answer this question, Park and his commandos assault a convoy transporting CTX, a new explosive developed by South Korean scientists that is odorless, colorless and all but undetectable. The code name for their operation is Shuri (or Shiri), a Korean fish that can only live in unpolluted fresh water.

Despite the efforts of Yu and Lee Jang Gil to stop them, the commandos make off with the CTX and move on to their next objective: a friendly soccer game between North and South Korean teams to be attended by the leaders of both countries. Their aim: blow up the stadium and thereby launch the war that they hope will finally unify the country under North Korean rule.

Meanwhile, South Korean intelligence is wrestling with the mystery of why Park and Lee Bang Hee seem to know their every move. There must be a mole -- and the fingers begin to point straight at Yu and Lee Jang Gil. Yu, however, is pursuing a romance with his fiancee, who runs a pet shop for fish fanciers and is blissfully ignorant of Yu's real job -- or is she?

Kang, who began his career as a scriptwriter and made his feature debut in 1995 with "The Gingko Bed," handles the complications of his plot with finesse and assurance, while screwing the tension to the max in approved Hollywood style. Though filmed on a pittance compared with big-budget Hollywood actioners, "Shuri" has all the expected genre elements, including the CG-enhanced explosions. It also has a feeling of actuality missing in most Asian action, which tends toward the operatic (Hong Kong) or merely incompetent (Japan). The characters handling the weaponry impress not as actors playing bang-bang, but as truly dangerous people.

The real point of the film is, however, that the Northerners subsisting on roots and grass and the Southerners raised on burgers and French fries are all, finally, Koreans. Someday in the not-too-distant future, if the popularity of "Shuri" is any indication, their leaders will realize it as well.

"Shuri" is playing at Cine La Sept in Ginza and other theaters. Dialogue in Korean, subtitles in Japanese.

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