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A deadly ballet of sleepers, moles, infiltrators, renegades, snipers - and also some kissing gouramis...,
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This review is from: Shiri  [DVD] (DVD)
This 1999 South Korean action film is a quite watchable thing, although ultimately not as good as I hoped for. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.
In October 1992, an elite group of North Korean soldiers are put through a brutal training regime. Under the auspices of their commander, Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik), they will be sent into South Korea as sleeper agents, to be reactivated at some later date. The most promising of the group is "Lee Bang-hee" (this is the code name she uses), an extremely gifted female sniper - once infiltrated to south she assassinates several key South Korean figures over the next six years. And then she suddenly stops all activity and vanishes. This all figures in the introduction.
The film begins in fact with two South Korean counter-intelligence officers, Yu Jong-won (Han Suk-kyu) and Lee Jang-gil (Song Kang-ho), making a point about their fruitless investigation and their failure to find any concrete, hard data about "Lee Bang-hee" - including how she looks and what is her real name... Yu and Lee, as well as their superiors, strongly suspect that this interruption in "Lee Bang-hee" activity simply indicates that North Koreans are up to something REALLY big... I will say no more about the story.
This film is actually inspired by real events, namely the little known in the West but absolutely merciless secret war North Korean nightmarish regime waged and still wages today against its Southern democratic neighbour. Some of the most notorious incidents are worth mentioning:
- on 21 January 1968 North Korean commando infiltrators attacked the Blue House, the residence of South Korean presidents trying to assassinate the president Park Chung-hee; the 31 members of the commando trained for this mission during two years! They didn't succeed and 28 were killed in fighting - one more committed suicide, one was captured alive and one managed most probably to escape back to North Korea. In successive firefights South Korean army and police lost 26 men killed - US Army lost further 4.
- on 9 October 1983 three North Korean secret agents planted a bomb at a mausoleum in Rangun (Burma) where South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan was expected to depose flowers during an official visit; because he was delayed in the traffic, he was not hurt - but the explosion killed 21 other people including South Korea deputy Prime Minister Suh Suk Jun, minister of foreign affairs Lee Beom-seok, minister for commerce and industry Kim Dong Whie, minister for power resources Suh Sang-chul, presidential chief of staff Ham Byeong-chun, as well as South Korean ambassador to Burma and three vice-ministers
- on 29 November 1987 Korean Air Boeing 707 (Flight 858 from Baghdad to Seoul) was destroyed by the explosion of a bomb smuggled on board by two North Korean agents, including a highly trained female operative, Kim Hyon Hui; all 115 people on board died.
- 18 September-5 November 1996. After a group of 25 heavily armed North Korean commando infiltrators were landed in the south by a submarine a manhunt was launched by South Korean army, which lasted 49 days. 13 infiltrators were killed in fighting, 11 died in a mass murder-suicide once cornered and one was taken alive. South Korean army lost 8 soldiers in fighting (and 4 more in an accident). During the manhunt the infiltrators also murdered four southern civilians.
- possibly as retaliation for the interception of this group of infiltrators, on 1 October 1996 Choe Deok-geun, a South Korean consular agent to Vladivostok (Russia) was ambushed and murdered by North Korean agents
- 17 December 1998 - a North Korean midget submarine was intercepted by South Korean navy when landing a group of commando infiltrators in the south; in the ensuing battle the ship was sunk and all infiltrators killed
Coming back to the film, well, it is not bad. The plot is honest, characters are rather well developed, there are some interesting twists and surprises, most action scenes are OK and especially there is NO idiotic kung fu (or in this case taekwondo) which so horribly hurts many Asiatic films.
The training of North Korean commandos and their quite impressive performance in fight are quite impressive – as is also the presentation of how ruthless and sadistically brutal is North Korean war machine (the training includes the use of political prisoners as living targets and it is very probably a TRUE STORY!).
On another hand this film is quite predictable – we guess quickly who is the main opponent of two heroes and it is quite possible to guess then what will ultimately happen to the whole film.
I also absolutely hated the idea that the whole great evil plot is supposedly not the work of North Korean government but of some "extremists" inside North Korean armed forces, who try to prevent northern regime to make peace with the south(!). Considering the murderous record of North Korean government both against its southern neighbours and its own population this kind of precautions always infuriated me!
This is definitely not a masterpiece but a watchable action film, refreshingly different from Hollywoodian action movies, which even if sometimes honest, are also annoyingly always the same. This exotic treat is therefore worth seeing – but in principle once.