The opening scene of Ryoo Seung-wan’s new spy-thriller The Berlin File is, for better and worse, an apt introduction to the film. A confusing arms deal involving North and South Korean, Russian, and Arab agents goes spectacularly awry, somehow entangling Israel and America in the process and sending North Korean super-spy Pyo Jong-Seung on the run, the victim of an elaborate plot that has framed him as a defector and left him wanted dead by all sides. A mosaic of action- and espionage-film clichés, yet bearing its share of novel qualities, what follows is equally lithe and languorous, light-footed and heavy-handed, and entirely frustrating.
There’s a good film lurking somewhere inside The Berlin File. The actors do what they can with the script, turning in strong performances of which the film is almost undeserving. Ha Jung-woo (known to American audiences as the hapless cab driver-cum-hitman of 2010’s The Yellow Sea) injects his character with staggering pathos and emotional complexity, as the North Korean agent on the run after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ryoo Seung-bum (the director’s brother and longtime partner in crime) is gleefully deranged as a sadistic North Korean operative/psychopath with an agenda of his own, sent to Berlin to clean up the mess. Playing the characters’ South Korean nemesis, Han Suk-kyu is a walking contradiction, both amused and horrified by the absurdity of the bloodshed he stumbles into.
The Berlin setting, though ripped from The Bourne Supremacy, is rendered unfamiliar enough to imbue the film’s borderline-potboiler tale of international espionage with an air of exoticism, and parallels between the Cold War and the contemporary situation in Korea emerge. But the film’s ending—a moment of unveiling in which Seung-wan shows his hand—is as predictable as it is disappointing, suggesting The Berlin File wasn’t made to stand alone. Beginning as a surprisingly moving tale of an unlikely protagonist and his quest for agency in an emotionally and politically convoluted world, the film forfeits most of its emotional impact when its conclusion evokes nothing more than the first installment of a new franchise.