Shiri (1999)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Eastern Condors

The Accidental Spy

Crime Story

Full Contact

If you liked the end credits song from this movie you can buy it by clicking below:


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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

"'Garçon' means boy!"
Summer is the usual season for action movies, but those of you looking to get things started early should seek Shiri, a Korean action flick currently making the rounds on DVD. This movie proves once again that the U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on movies about shoot-outs, buildings exploding, and people who can outrun fireballs. Even better, Shiri is superior to most of the action movies we sat through in theaters in recent years. (Swordfish, we're looking at you.) Careful character development and some compelling plot twists should put Shiri at the top of your rental list.

The Korean critics who reviewed Shiri repeated a phrase undoubtedly lifted from its press release: that the movie features "51% action, 49% love." We'd like to see their figures, because by our math that shortchanges the action by at least 25%. There is some mushy stuff in the film, but anyone under the impression that Shiri would make a good date movie will probably discover their mistake in the opening scenes. It's 1992, and communist North Korea is training the 8th Special Force, a sort of super commando unit. A few of the exercises involve the murder of some handy prisoners shipped in for the occasion. In a series of brutally graphic sequences, we see Hee, a female soldier, rise to the top of her class as a sniper and all-around badass.

In his defense, that Bono
is a real cutie.
In the following years Hee operates in South Korea, assassinating politicians and scientists, but always staying one step ahead of the South Korean O.P., or secret police. In 1996 Hee disappears from the secret agent life, but only after she leaves a corpse with the words "good-bye" written on it for the O.P. agents in charge of hunting her. Dead bodies: When you care enough to send the very best.

The action jumps forward to 1999. The two agents in charge of finding Hee, Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu) and Lee (Song Kang-Ho) have moved on to other cases. Lee is a fairly anti-social type, and we are told repeatedly that he doesn't like music. (Normally, this sort of repeated statement becomes a plot point, so we were a bit confused when it never resurfaced.) Ryu has a new fiancé named Hyun (Kim Yun-Jin), who in turn owns a fish store and doesn't know what Ryu really does for a living. Hyun is so innocent you just know she's going to end up with a gun to her head by the end of the movie.

Those John Woo lessons
are really coming along.
The plot kicks into gear when Hee returns from exile to assassinate an illegal weapons dealer during a meeting with Ryu. Law enforcement in Korea must have a lot of leeway, because even though Hee is firing with a high powered rifle from hundred of yards away Ryu wildly returns fire with a pistol – in the middle of a business district.

Ryu and Lee discover that the weapons dealer was doing business with Hee, who was in turn fronting for the 8th Special Forces, several members of which have snuck into South Korea. Ryu and Lee quickly find that every they lead they trace is getting killed by the elusive Hee, even though no one outside O.P. should know their moves. The two cops suspect that someone is leaking information to the North Koreans.

That, and the scattering of your
atoms to the wind.
After a number of futile exchanges between the cops and Hee, the O.P. learns that Hee left retirement to help acquire a chemical called CTX. It's a colorless, odorless liquid explosive that is completely stable so long as it is not exposed to light or heat. Boy, somebody line up a Nobel Prize for the scientists who came up with that. In any case, the 8th Special Forces steal a gallon of CTX (enough to level a city, we are told) during its transport along a sparsely used road. When will the people who transport super-explosives ever learn?

"No, but once I saw a tuna melt."
Scenes like the one above serve to remind us of how willing this movie is to emulate its Hollywood brethren. Another reminder comes later in the movie when one of the O.P. agents lures several of the terrorists into an ambush in a cultural center. The ensuing gunfight spills out on to the street. This resembles very closely a like scene in Heat, complete with hostages taken from the crowded sidewalks. Sure, it makes for a gripping fight, but does it really make sense that the good guys would lure terrorists into a shootout in a crowded civilian area? The gunfight later moves into a kitchen, a la La Femme Nikita and nearly every action movie since. While these gunfights are expertly shot and well edited, we couldn't help feeling that we had already seen them.

"And you can see that the
candy corn got lodged right here."
Just when our patience ran thin with this by-the-numbers action flick, Shiri ambushed us. Plot developments paid off and characters showed sparks of life that rarely make it to film these days. The hunt for the mole within the O.P. pits even Ryu and Lee against each other. The members of the 8th Special Force prove that they're not kidding around with CTX. An oddball agent gets a chance to prove himself, and the final showdown with Hee may cost these partners even more than their lives. We wouldn't do the movie the disservice of spoiling what happens, but we will say that Shiri is one of the ballsiest political thrillers we've seen in years, especially considering the country in which it was made. Occasionally the depiction of North Korea edges into silliness, like when the 8th Special Forces Commander Park (Gary Oldman look-alike Choi Min-Sik) claims hunger drives routinely forces parents to eat their dead children in the North, but all in all the movie remains believable.

Director Kang Je-Gyu was rewarded for taking risks by breaking every box office record in Korea, including those of Titanic. It's rumored that an American studio has made him an offer. The question then becomes: will Kang be the next John Woo, directing the biggest movies around? Or will he prove to be the next Kirk Wong or Ringo Lam, who used to be at the cutting edge of action filmmaking but have all but disappeared into Hollywood's quagmire?

Review date: 04/16/2002

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