Shiri (1999)
Shiri (1999)

Genre: Action and Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: February 13th, 1999 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Je-gyu Kang Actors: Suk-kyu Han, Min-sik Choi, Yoon-jin Kim, Kang-ho Song, Derek Kim, Seung-Shin Lee




hen North Korea’s deadliest assassin, Hee, mysteriously disappears after leaving a steadily surmounting pile of bodies in her wake, South Korean intelligence agents Ryu (Han Suk-yu) and Lee (Song Kang-ho) breathe an uneasy sigh of relief. Years pass with no sign of the killer, until a black market arms dealer is dispatched by Hee’s signature sniper methods. Springing back onto her trail, Ryu and Lee follow clues and corpses to a North Korean terrorist (Choi Min-sik) and his plot to steal a newly designed liquid bomb from the South’s military science division. With time quickly running out, and a possible information leak within their own unit, the two agents must find the courage to eliminate a ghostly executioner and stop a madman’s scheme to murder thousands of innocent people.

In South Korean espionage epic “Shiri,” protagonist Agent Ryu compares his quarry, super spy Hee, to the mythological Hydra. It’s a fitting description for the villainess, but also for the film. Within “Shiri” are three very different movies struggling to take precedence. A competent, politically charged thriller surfaces often, providing intrigue with its cat-and-mouse chase plot and “can’t trust anyone” mystery sensibilities. Equally engaging, though slightly less focused, is a melancholy romance that harbors the film’s greatest twists and turns. Lastly, a hyperkinetic action movie breaks through in short but overdramatic bursts, extending forth an avenue for quick thrills and a climax bearing an odd resemblance to Michael Bay’s “The Rock.”

As the mystery ramps up and Ryu and Lee struggle to keep up with their nemeses, “Shiri” offers its strongest entertainment. When the duo realizes the only explanation for their enemies’ ability to stay one step ahead is due to a mole within their ranks, the resulting layers of distrust and paranoia ripple chillingly throughout each relationship, affecting both partners’ work lives and Ryu’s connection at home with his fiancee Hyun (Kim Yoon-jin). All three leads shine in these sections, relating pathos, camaraderie, romance, and even humor. The film’s visible villain, Choi Min-sik, typically a scene-stealing character actor, isn’t offered much chance to come alive here. Reduced to a standard, stone-faced, no-nonsense terrorist, his menacing demeanor is effective but unremarkable.

The staccato excursions into action movie territory are “Shiri’s” greatest pitfalls, breaking up the deepening mystery plot for a few flashy explosions and gunfights. The actual shootouts are mostly rousing, pulse-pounding affairs, but the use of a shaky camera to capture movement is downright headache-inducing. It’s not just normal lilting from handheld photography, but a purposely jolting exercise, as if to simulate an earthquake that’s not really happening. It adds a confusing chaos at best and becomes utterly distracting at worst. Strange segues during protracted action sequences also interfere with the flow. A shootout in a claustrophobic kitchen suddenly opens into a chase down a crowded shopping mall, while a hostage grab in a busy street transitions to a sidewalk gunfight with the unlucky civilian nowhere in sight. Even a side plot involving ten liquid bombs going off around the city fizzles after the first detonation. Perhaps the most Western influence can be seen in the film’s climax, where unwelcome notes from director Michael Bay surface – cameras rotate around central characters in a standoff and unnecessary slow motion pops up at irritating intervals.

But “Shiri” holds a special place in the South Korean film industry. Rising from an economic boom in the country during the late ’90s, the picture received the largest budget ever given to a movie production at the time. Its theatrical release saw massive critical and financial success, even handsomely toppling the previous record set for most attendees – by James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Though much of the appeal during its release was the close mirroring of a Hollywood blockbuster, that superficial luster fades over the years, leaving moments of heartfelt drama and capable storytelling as “Shiri’s” most memorable qualities.

– Joel Massie

  • 6/10