Ha Jung-woo standing next to a car

with the new leader coming to power, the North Korean secret services are in the middle of a crisis. To take care of moles & troubles, a killer is sent to the Berlin division. The main target is the wife of spy considered as the Republic’s Hero.


As a cinephile director, Ryoo Seung-wan is often finding some inspiration in movies; City of Violence (2006) was following the steps of the references games initiated by Kill Bill; Dachimawa Lee (2008) was under the influence of popular HK/South Korean movies from the 70/80s… And here, with The Berlin File, the director is showing an interest for US-european political spy-thrillers from the 70s.

A great opportunity to move away from South Korea, to go mostly shoot in Europe, choosing Berlin as the battle ground between both Koreas. This city is quite the symbol of the Cold War espionage, at the time, Berlin was divided into two parts with capitalist countries fighting against communism, before finally being reunited decades later. How familiar, right?

And on paper, the subject of the film seemed to take advantage of that historical & geographical background. That is to say, Berlin as a spy nest, where nobody can trust anyone, where people have no idea of what’s at stake, where State treason & manipulation are the norm. So many intriguing ideas coming from a director whose previous film proved to be an exciting thriller–The Unjust, confusing story, a spot-on description of the police system.


Messy and confusing, just like The Berlin File. The film tries too hard to make things complicated when the story is so simple, involving a man betrayed on a personal & ideological level. Ryoo Seung-wan, writer & director here, begins the film by over-doing everything. Instead of clearly introducing the plot, he uses tons of useful & tiresome visual effects.

The introduction is fast-paced, leaving no room to fully understand what’s happening–fast editing, split-screens, new characters appearing suddenly. That’s the life of a spy, it goes fast, decisions must be taken quick. And so, the film spends the first hour introducing the plot, showing us who’s involved, what do they each want… without succeeding in making the characters emotionally appealing, they’re like puppets stuck in a game of treasons that seems to be very important.

The second hour brings back the excitement, hopefully. The story moves closer to the characters, following them during several difficult situations forcing them to choose between loyalty & duty. That part delivers some nicely executed action scenes featuring great ideas–the way to break a gun, the fight in the flat, the fact spies are humans even when they’re hurt–but ultimately, it still lacks empathy, with an uneven pace, failing to keep the excitement intact.

↑ One of the few shots to actually have this “Berlin feel”


Berlin appears as an exotic background, except for some large shots of the roots/roads of the city, the city could have been set anywhere else in the world without affecting the story. Ryoo Seung-wan doesn’t fully take into consideration the local architecture, even though he takes us from parks to popular places, even though he creates some sequences in the streets or in the metro, the city of Berlin is dramatically shallow/generic–yet, the original title is Berlin

The international part of the story can mostly be heard during the english & german dialogues, with the Korean actors having as always some difficulties to sound legit. But that’s nothing new really.

That’s too bad, because behind all that, Ryoo Seung-wan has ambitious ideas. First of all, moving to Europe in an attempt to renew the genre. To choose as the main character a North Korean spy–who is called “commie” by most South Koreans during the film–which will allow to deal about the power struggle happening at the highest political level in the North–the smell of purge & self-criticism. Plus, the solid casting, Ha Jung-woo facing Ryoo Seung-bum!


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