Dubbed by the local press as the 'small fish that sank Titanic', "Shiri (Swiri)" is the most successful film in South Korean box office history. With production values and visuals rivaling both Hollywood and Hong Kong action movies, the star power of popular Korean actors Han Suk-kyu ("Christmas in August") and Choi Min-shik, and a story centered around the continuing Cold War tensions between North and South Korea, this espionage action-thriller easily won over domestic audiences when it was released in 1999. "Shiri" also marked a turning point in the evolution of South Korean cinema towards a more market-driven industry, which, up until that point, relied on the country's 'quota system' (where all cinemas are required show domestic films for 146 days of the year) for viability. Not surprisingly, "Shiri" also became the de facto model for the industry for producing commercially viable fare in the face of increasing foreign competition. Unfortunately, once you strip away the commercial success, the high-octane visual flourishes, and the slick action sequences, what remains, at best, is a formulaic and cliché-ridden thriller that suffers from some missed opportunities.
The film's prologue begins in 1992, at a training camp for assassins in the North Korean countryside. Using live ammunition and live targets, one soldier proves herself to be a superior killing machine, a young woman named Lee Bang-hee, who is promptly shipped off by her superior, Park (Choi) to take out political and military targets in South Korea. Fast-forward a few years later, and Bang-hee is still on the loose in South Korea, and the South Korean agents on her tail are Ryu (Han) and his partner Lee (Song Kang-ho, who recently appeared in 2000's "Joint Security Area"). Unfortunately, Bang-hee's identity remains a mystery, since she has undergone plastic surgery to change her appearance.
However, Ryu and Lee have more pressing matters to attend to. Acting against orders from their own government, Park and a squad of North Korean commandos cross the border to steal a shipment of CTX, a powerful new explosive that is indistinguishable from water. The timing couldn't be worse, as the soccer teams of North and South Korea are about to partake in a symbolic game at the Seoul stadium, signaling a potential thaw in the long-running Cold War. To further complicate matters, the CTX heist brings Bang-hee out of hiding, whose superior sniping abilities wreak havoc on Ryu and Lee's attempts to foil Park's plans. In addition, it appears there is a leak within the South Korean intelligence service, which trigger Ryu and Lee to suspect the other of being a double agent.
The film takes its name from a freshwater fish indigenous to the DMZ, the swath of land dividing Korea between the democratic South and the communist North. Like the fish which knows no borders or cares little for the rival ideologies on either side of the 38th parallel, writer/director Jacky Kang ("The Gingko Bed") speaks to the hopes of reunification for his divided country. Another reunification-minded fish-related symbol appears in the film in the form of gourami, so-called 'kissing fish', which cannot live apart-- if one of a pair dies, the other follows suit soon after. Furthermore, according to marine biologists, the 'kissing' observed in the gourami is actually territorial behavior, mirroring the symbiotic yet adversarial relationship between the North and South. Kang even goes as far as portraying the North in a somewhat sympathetic light, as Park asks Ryu, "How can you, who grew up eating Coke and hamburgers, understand that your brothers in the North are starving?" This, of course, would have been unheard of a few years ago under South Korea's formerly draconian censorship laws. What is even more surprising is that despite the sympathetic tone towards the North, the South Korean military made "Shiri" required viewing for its troops, since its terrorist subject matter promoted the notion of eternal vigilance.
But aside from the political symbolism, the script for "Shiri" is a somewhat disappointing run-of-the-mill action-thriller, something not too far removed from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of filmmaking. Kang has studied the trappings of the American action movie to a fault, with its preponderance of terse and functional dialogue, unfunny comic relief characters, and overwrought 'ticking bomb' climax. And while Kang tries to add an emotional layer with a romantic subplot centered around Ryu and his fish store proprietor fiancée Hyun (Kim Yoon-jin), the poorly-defined motivations he assigns to these characters ends up making the film's climax a little on the emotionally-cool side.
That said, the film's action sequences are rather fun to watch, and probably the film's only saving grace. Though the film was made for a paltry $5 million US (which is six times the typical budget for a typical Korean feature), the production values, particularly in the action department, are top-notch. In order to bring such an ambitious project to life, both Kang and his two lead actors opted for Hollywood-type 'back-end deals', leaving more money up-front for the production itself, much of it can be seen on the screen. Fans of the Hong Kong 'SDU' action sub-genre will feel right at home, as there's plenty of hardware on display here, as the intrepid secret agents, North Korean terrorists, and dozens of MP5-carrying SWAT teams exchange blows in and around Seoul. Kang's cinematic action direction is more than competent, blending the 'hyper-reality' of Kirk Wong ("The Big Hit") and the graceful slo-mo of John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2") in a number of memorable sequences, such as a daring daylight heist of the CTX on a highway, a pitched exchange of gunfire through city streets, and the film's climactic and visually-stunning showdown in Seoul stadium.
When "Shiri" was released in 1999, it was catapulted to the top of the South Korean box office by its blend of action and romance, and ended up toppling the record previously held by "Titanic". And with its availability on Hong Kong import VCD and DVD, as well as the recently released North American DVD, this actioner has steadily been gaining an international following, including North America. To its credit, the film boasts impressive action set pieces and production values that rival those of American action films. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a by-the-book script and half-baked characterizations that end up making "Shiri" a 'fishy story'. But despite these shortcomings, "Shiri" will probably be remembered in the years to come as being one of the more influential works of the 'Korean New Wave', signaling when South Korean filmmakers finally learned how to compete on the world stage.